Back to the Economy
Seven weeks to go and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is feeling the pressure. After getting no bounce from the Republican Party convention in Tampa, Florida and watching President Obama’s modest climb in the polls, the Romney camp is trying to refocus on the economy and jobs in the final weeks, or at least in the days leading up to the first presidential debate October 3rd.
Last week was a bit of a lost one for the Republican candidate and his campaign. Mr. Romney’s decision to move in full throttle on the violence in the Middle East drew bad media reviews and once again kept the campaign off-message for days. Instead of focusing on the economy — still the Romney camp’s strongest card — the candidate found himself on the defensive trying to explain his critique of Obama foreign policy in the Middle East in the midst of a crisis over the mob attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya and the embassy in Cairo.
Back to Basics
The central theory of the Romney campaign has always been that their man will win once he convinces enough voters that President Obama has failed and that Mr. Romney’s business experience warrants giving him a shot in the White House for the next four years.
But turning an incumbent president out of office is always a two-step process. Step one is convincing voters the incumbent has failed. Has Mr. Romney succeeded here? I’d say the grade is “Incomplete.” There is plenty of evidence for voters to understand that the economy is still nowhere near as strong and robust as they would like it. But polls suggest some voters still hold the previous administration of President George W. Bush at least partly responsible for the current state of affairs, so not all the blame is falling on President Obama. Plus some voters may be open to the Obama argument that things are not as bad as they could be had the president not taken action early in his term.
But the second step of the process is where Mr. Romney seems to have faltered. Once you make the case that the incumbent should go, you then have a responsibility to lay out why the challenger should be elected. That involves offering a clear picture of who the candidate is and what he or she stands for, and also what specifically they would do once in office.
Mr. Romney had success in making himself acceptable to conservatives during the primaries, but he has not made an easy transition to a general election candidate. For example, what did he and vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan have to offer to moderate swing voters during their convention? Mr. Romney continues to trail the president in terms of personal likability, but that doesn’t necessarily doom your chances in the election. Before giving Romney the keys to the White House, what voters seem to want from the Republican nominee is a better sense of who he is and a better idea of exactly what he would do once in office.
Debates are Key
Mitt Romney’s best chance to turn things around will probably be the first presidential debate on October 3rd. The first debate is always one of those key moments in the campaign where even casual voters like to tune in and get a sense of the two candidates.
If Mr. Romney can make a convincing case for his own election without appearing to savage the president, he could make the race a nail-biter once again. Mr. Romney did try to strike this note during his convention acceptance speech when he adopted a kind of sorrowful tone in trying to convince swing voters that as much as they would have liked the president to succeed, he wasn’t able to and now it’s time for a change.
Mr. Romney has to contend with the fact that voters probably will always like Barack Obama better, and that means he’s going to have to appeal to their heads, not their hearts. Sure, the far right was always an easy sell on the idea of turning Mr. Obama out of office.
But figuring out how to handle swing voters who are disappointed in the president and at least open to the idea of supporting the Republican nominee is a much more nuanced, subtle challenge. And it’s a challenge that so far the Romney campaign has not been able to figure out.