Slight Could Make Might in 2012
Taking a look at the latest public opinion polls, it appears President Obama got at least a modest bump following last week’s Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. This may or may not be significant, but at the very least it suggests a bit of a lost opportunity for the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney.
Heading into the party conventions, the polls had the race basically tied. The Republican convention in Tampa, Florida seemed to set up the Romney campaign for an opportunity in which they could better connect with the public as to who their candidate is, what he stands for and why people should like him more.
But a film highlighting Mitt Romney’s personal qualities was eliminated from the precious 10-11pm hour of network television the final night of the Republican convention. Instead, viewers got Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood, who decided at the last minute he’d like to yell at a chair (holding an imaginary President Obama) while thousands inside the convention hall and millions more watching at home squirmed uneasily.
The result was a classic lost political opportunity. Mr. Romney did a credible job in delivering his speech, but the post-Republican convention polls showed at best a one-point bump in popularity. Granted this is a close race and has been from the beginning, but coming out of Tampa with very little to show in terms of momentum and changing the public’s view of Mr. Romney was not the outcome Republicans wanted.
Obama Bump Thanks to Bill and Michelle
The final word on President Obama’s post-convention bounce will come within a few days as the pollsters digest voter reactions to the Democrats’ Charlotte convention. I was struck by the energy among Democrats I found there for the upcoming campaign.
I had figured the Republicans would be all revved up to beat the president in November, even if they weren’t convinced that Mitt Romney was the best guy to carry them into battle. The Democrats also put on a good show and managed to do a better job of presenting their party positions on foreign policy and even national security, something the Republicans usually had an advantage on.
The Democrats also had some powerful surrogates—First lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton. It looks as though Mr. Clinton will win the gold as the best speaker from both conventions, giving the president a huge boost, especially with moderates who’ve been disappointed in Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy and his inability to solve political polarization in Washington (as if any one politician could).
The president’s speech was solid but not spectacular, in the view of many Democratic delegates. But the contrasts the Democrats were able to draw with Republicans on a host of social issues and their attention to women voters gave them a leg up over the Republicans heading into the final weeks of the campaign.
Debates Make or Break
So now we have Mr. Romney looking ahead to the presidential debates as perhaps his last chance to alter the dynamics of the race. His selection of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate didn’t seem to have much impact on the polls, probably because that choice doesn’t really speak to moderates looking for some sort of ‘game changer’ that would make them more likely to abandon the president and fall in behind Mr. Romney.
And now we have the aftermath of the conventions, where the president seems to have pulled into a slight lead. All this points to the importance of Mr. Romney needing to make his case in a series of three presidential debates beginning October 3rd in Denver.
Most of the time, the debates don’t produce a clear winner and likelihood of either candidate land a “knock-out” blow seems remote. Often they focus on non-verbal moments like President George H. W. Bush checking his watch in 1992 or Al Gore sighing in his matchup with George W. Bush in 2000.
It’s possible the Obama campaign will adopt a strategy to play defense in the debates and simply try to deny Mr. Romney the chance to score any significant points. But from the point of view of the Romney campaign, I think they will need to be aggressive, knowing full well that unless he can find a way to alter the current dynamic of the race in the next few weeks, it’s possible the president will be able to hang on to his modest lead and run out the clock on the Republicans by election day November 6th.
Of course, putting too much emphasis on an aggressive debate performance is risky. Mr. Romney did well in the Republican primary debates earlier this year. In fact, I would argue that is a key reason why he was able to prevail and become the nominee.
But during his Republican convention speech, Mr. Romney tried to appeal to disenchanted Obama supporters with a less confrontational tone. Apparently, he hoped to win over moderates who still like the president but believe his policies have failed.
But switching tone in the debates to an aggressive attack mode risks alienating that small pool of remaining undecided voters who may retain a measure of affinity for the president even though they are unhappy with the economy and the general direction of the country.
Going into the debates, both campaigns are aware that voters may be open to firing President Obama because of the weak economy. But the Romney camp has yet to make a convincing argument that voters should hire their guy, either because they don’t like him, haven’t heard enough specifics about his policies or aren’t sure he could really do much better anyway.
In any event, the debates shape up as Mitt Romney’s last/best/perhaps only hope to win the White House in 2012.