Obama and Romney Target the Center

Posted May 24th, 2012 at 3:58 pm (UTC+0)



But First They Must Shore Up Core Supporters


No question about it, the 2012 presidential election looks to be close.  The first priority for both major party candidates (President Obama and, we presume, Mitt Romney) is to make sure their partisans get out and vote in November.  In order to compete for the White House, you’ve got to have your party’s base behind you, and that means maximizing turnout among Democratic and Republican loyalists.

In that sense, the 2012 matchup is starting to resemble the 2004 showdown between the incumbent, President George W. Bush, and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

President Obama smiles during a visit May 23, to Redwood City, California. Photo: AP

The Obama campaign seems to be well aware of the 2004 Bush playbook that first and foremost emphasized a strong turnout from Republicans and independents who lean Republican.  Part of this was an acknowledgement that in 2000 the Bush campaign did not do as well as they had hoped with conservative turnout, especially evangelical Christians.

Some of the evangelical Christians were most likely turned off by the last-minute revelation that Mr. Bush had been arrested in 1976 for driving under the influence near his parent’s summer home in Maine.  So in 2004, Karl Rove and the Bush campaign were determined to boost evangelical Christian turnout and they were successful.

Once the party bases are secure, the battle shifts to the political center and the competition to win over independent, centrist or moderate voters who tend to fluctuate between the major parties during presidential election years.  There seems to be some debate this year among the experts as to how big a group of persuadable voters there will be come November.

Like George W. Bush before him, President Obama is seen by Republicans especially as a polarizing political figure who has set the country on the wrong course in terms of both the economy and health care and who must now be denied a second term in office.  Under this scenario, most people will decide they are either pro-Obama or anti-Obama well before the election, leaving a relatively small group of persuadable or undecided voters for either candidate to win over.

Latest Public Opinion Polls

On the other hand, the Gallup polling organization recently found that about 40 percent of U.S. voters now consider themselves independents.  Linda Killian, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, wrote in the Washington Post Outlook section that in the past four years, more than 2 million Americans have left the two major parties to register as independents, making them a prime target for both campaigns in the months ahead.

Recent polls show the president and Romney virtually tied with independent voters, so you know the competition will only get more intense as we head toward Election Day.

Democrats won independent voters by a huge margin in 2006, helping them win control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  In 2008, Barack Obama won independents by an eight percentage point margin over John McCain.  But Democrats hit a brick wall two years ago when Republicans routed them among independents by 19 points, helping them cruise to a majority in the House and picking up seats in the Senate.

Of the 40 percent of independent voters this year, probably half generally lean toward one party or the other in any given election.  So we can expect the Republican-leaners to favor Romney in November and that means the president will have to do better among the remaining independents that tend to be truly unaffiliated with either major party.

Independent voters tend to be more concerned with economic issues than polarizing social debates like abortion or gay marriage.  They also tend to want both parties come together, especially in Congress, and find common ground to get things done.  I would expect the Obama campaign to focus on bipartisan solutions to problems in pitching their argument to this group.  The Romney camp will keep the focus on the economy, the high unemployment rate and the need for business growth, all areas they see as an advantage for them.

Republican Mitt Romney, speaking to a Latino Coalition group May 23 in Washington D.C., wants to focus on the economy. Photo: AP

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that this year’s race will be close right up through November.  The president has a slight lead over Romney, 49 to 46 percent.  Both men register 47 percent support on handling the economy.  President Obama has an eight point edge over Romney when it comes to understanding people’s economic problems, and a 13 percent bulge over Romney as the one with “better personal character” to be president.

But Romney has an advantage when the question becomes essentially whether people are better off now than they were four years ago.  Thirty percent in the latest poll say they are worse off than when Mr. Obama came into office in 2009, while only 16 percent say they are better off.

Based on his economic record, President Obama may have a steep climb to win over independents.  But the president seems to have a bit of an advantage among swing voters in the 12 states most likely to swing one way or the other in November — crucial battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

If the president can maintain his advantage with independent voters in these states, he’ll probably get re-elected.  If Romney makes serious inroads, then Mr. Obama’s prospects for another four years in office will look doubtful.




The Obama-Romney Battle Engages

Posted May 16th, 2012 at 8:06 pm (UTC+0)
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Early Efforts to Define the Opponent


Some people call this the silly season.  The ongoing back and forth between President Barack Obama and Republican Party challenger Mitt Romney is seen by some as merely a warm up for the main event, which won’t begin in earnest until America’s nominating conventions are over in early September.

The argument goes that most voters won’t start paying attention to the election campaign until the final weeks before Election Day.  True enough, to a point.

President Obama is moving quickly to define his Republican opponent as an insensitive businessman. Photo: AP

But the fact is presidential election campaigns have become an unceasing, 24/7 undertaking, beginning months before November, in which both presidential campaigns struggle mightily to negatively define their opponent.

The latest example is the war of videos between a Super Pac supporting the president on one side, and on the other, the Romney campaign’s efforts to defend his record with Bain Capital. The Democrats hope to portray Romney as insensitive to the plight of workers who lost their jobs when Bain bought their companies, while Republicans will emphasize Romney’s effective management of those firms that thrived.

Historically, the months leading up to the November election can be crucial.  It’s not always evident at the time because the assumption is that most people aren’t paying close attention yet.  But the fact is it’s possible to largely define your opponent in the six months or so before the election, often with incredible effectiveness.

Remember the 1988 presidential campaign.  Little-known technocrat and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis found himself with big lead in public opinion polls that summer over his Republican opponent, Vice President George H. W. Bush.

Mr. Bush positioned himself as the man who would effectively carry out a third Reagan term, since then-President Ronald Reagan was barred from running again in 1988 by a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to serving two consecutive terms in office.

Let’s say people were at least open to Dukakis, at least in the beginning.  But it didn’t last long.  Republican operatives quickly focused on the case of convicted murderer Willie Horton, who committed assault and rape while out on a prison furlough during Dukakis’s time as governor.

Despite criticism from Democrats who say the ad pandered to racial politics, the Bush campaign used the Horton case to define Dukakis as a typical Massachusetts liberal soft on crime. Years later, Dukakis expressed amazement that people fell for the whole Republican attack ad campaign that helped to do him in.

Dukakis probably found a sympathetic ear in his one-time Lt. Governor, John Kerry.  Kerry went on to the Senate and then became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.

But Kerry ran into his own problems with the campaign of President George W. Bush when he was tagged as a flip-flopper thanks to an effective ad that showed him saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”, a reference to Senate votes on funding war efforts in Iran and Afghanistan in 2003.

Kerry was also done by what should have been his strength — his military service in Vietnam.  A conservative-backed group called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised questions about Kerry’s wartime service in the Navy.

Kerry’s people initially dismissed the attacks, skeptical that voters would buy into what they thought was typical right-wing electioneering.  Too late, they realized the Republican attacks helped to define Kerry as sketchy and untrustworthy, and that depiction dogged Kerry right up until Election Day when President Bush eked out a narrow re-election victory.

The point is that candidates who are defined early on in a negative light can have a hard time trying to undo the damage.

Polls Show Race Tightening


Yes, Mitt Romney was pulled to the right, some would say extreme right, during the Republican primaries.  And yes, President Obama has a big edge in that voters seem to like him more than Romney, even as they have doubts about his handling of the economy.

The Romney campaign portrays its candidate as the man who can fix the U.S. economy. Photo AP

It’s also true that Romney faces huge challenges in reducing the gender gap in terms of his support among women voters. He also faces a huge deficit in support among Hispanics.

So given all that, President Obama should be a shoo-in, right?  Ah, no.  All signs point to a very close election, certainly more along the lines of President Bush’s narrow victory over John Kerry in 2004, and maybe approaching the Armageddon of U.S. presidential elections, the 2000 coin flip between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Many of the latest matchups show the major candidates dead even, and some even have Romney ahead slightly.  That is somewhat surprising given Romney’s suspect national poll ratings through the Republican primary season, where he had to step carefully navigating the treacherous shoals of far-right Republican politics.

In some ways, Romney’s pitch is simple: If you like what Obama has done, stick with him.  But if you don’t like where the economy is, or if you have lost faith in the inevitability of the American Dream, then “I’m your guy.  I’m a proven businessman, someone who governed as a moderate Republican in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts and someone who comes out of the mainstream of the party in the mold of former presidents like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, both of whom benefited from the support of moderates.”

The Obama pitch is a little more complicated:  “Yes, we could have done better, but we were handed one of the worst economic messes in U.S. history.  Jobs are coming, albeit slowly, and there are plenty of other signs that things are getting better, even if it’s not as fast as we’d like.  And by the way, voting for my opponent simply means a return to the Bush years, pre-2009.”

That’s why the White House really doesn’t want the election to be a simple referendum on President Obama and the last four years.  That would make it too tempting for people vote “thumbs down.”  And that’s also why they Obama campaign is committed to presenting the election as a choice between two directions — President Obama and moving “Forward” (his campaign slogan), or Mitt Romney returning us to the past.




Obama, Gay Marriage and the Election

Posted May 10th, 2012 at 7:44 pm (UTC+0)


Will it Hurt or Help?

Many of us drawn to journalism are also drawn to history.  We fancy ourselves as witnesses and are often inspired by the description of our profession as the “first rough draft of history,” even though we don’t wind up reporting true history every day.

Wednesday was different.  For the first time, a U.S. president came out in favor of gay marriage.  For the gay rights movement this was truly historic, a moment that will be recalled through the ages.  No matter what the political outcome, President Obama will go down in history for what many of his supporters will see as a courageous decision on a social issue that tends to split the country right down the middle.

President Barack Obama leaves on a trip to California Thursday, a day after he said he was in favor of gay marriage rights. Photo: AP

As for the political ramifications, frankly, it remains a bit uncertain.  The 2012 election will be by all accounts close, possibly very close, and so anything the president can do now to rev up his Democratic base is probably a good thing.  This will obviously help with gay voters, one of several Democratic Party constituencies that have been somewhat disappointed with the results of the Obama presidency so far.  Another positive is that the gay community can raise a lot of money for the president and will presumably be more inclined than ever to do so.

Young voters in particular support the right to gay marriage and the president’s change of heart could have an impact on getting them back to the polls in 2008.  The president benefited from record turnout among young and first time voters four years ago, and one of the recurring White House nightmares is that younger voters will return to their apathetic ways this year and stay home election day, possibly costing Mr. Obama a second term.

If the trend line continues, younger voters are likely to spur of wave of growing support down the line, which means a lot of politicians, especially in the Democratic Party, are going to be scrambling to catch up in the years ahead.  In addition, gay characters and couples are prominently featured on American television programs now and seem more accepted than ever in the mainstream, especially by younger people who don’t quite get what all the fuss is about.

All that having been said, there are real political risks to the president’s decision.  Gay marriage remains one of the most polarizing issues in the country and in a close election it could make a difference.  Public opinion in support of gay marriage has been steadily building, but most polls still show a sharp divide over the issue, with supporters holding a very slim lead over opponents, including a 50-48 edge in a recent Gallup survey.

The state by state tally for gay marriage is also not favorable at the moment.  The day before the president’s announcement, North Carolina became the 30th state to vote to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.  Only six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, while nine states currently permit civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Many political analysts noted that Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney’s response to the Obama announcement was fairly muted.  No doubt social conservative leaders are happy, seeing the issue as something they can use against the president in November. One gay marriage opponent went so far as to say it will cost the president re-election.

Republican Mitt Romney, campaigning in Oklahoma, had a low-key response to the president's gay marriage rights stand. Photo: AP

But Romney has to tread carefully with independent voters and keep his focus on the economy to win in November.  Getting into a fight with the president over social issues may help energize the Republican conservative base, but it probably won’t mean much to moderate swing voters trying to decide who will be the best leader on the economy come November.

In 2004, President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign made a point to highlight gay marriage as an issue in several battleground states.  That effort paid off in a higher turnout for Bush among evangelical Christian voters than four years previous and helped him defeat Democrat John Kerry for a second term in office.

The politics are more complicated now.  Clearly the country as a whole has shifted to basically a 50-50 deadlock on the issue, which is a victory for supporters given where the poll numbers were five or 10 years ago.

It should help the president with his Democratic base, but it might do the same for Mitt Romney among social conservatives, many of whom have found him wanting on social issues during the Republican primaries.  It could also help the president among the most important target group for his re-election—independent voters.  They tend to be more liberal on social issues and a bit more conservative on economic matters.

Either way, the president has made history on this issue.  Whether it helps him or hurts him in November remains an open question.



Obama Plays to His Strength

Posted May 2nd, 2012 at 8:56 pm (UTC+0)
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Surprise Visit to Afghanistan on Anniversary of OBL’s Demise


President Obama greets U.S. troops at Bagram Air Force Base outside Kabul after signing accord with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Photo: Reuters

President Obama injected some foreign policy drama into the 2012 election campaign with his middle-of-the-night surprise trip to Afghanistan.  The pictures of Air Force One appearing out of the gloomy darkness at Bagram Air Base and the president giving the troops a pep talk were strong images to project on the one-year anniversary of the death of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

The Obama campaign kicked off the bin Laden anniversary by issuing a campaign video featuring commentary from former President Bill Clinton on the tense moments when the raid was approved and carried out by Navy Seals.  That brought complaints from the Mitt Romney camp that the president was doing the very thing he promised not to, use the anniversary for political purposes to bolster his foreign policy credentials.

Romney appeared in New York City with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a firehouse where he took the opportunity to rebut the Obama campaign contention that he might have hesitated to authorize the raid that killed bin Laden.  But Romney was interrupted by a lone heckler at times and the images of him serving pizza to firefighters paled in comparison to the pictures coming out of Afghanistan of Mr. Obama carrying out his duties as commander-in-chief.

Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney (R) marks the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death at a New York fire station with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Reuters

You may ask why the Romney campaign even bothered to try and go toe-to-toe with the White House on the bin Laden anniversary.  It’s true that this election will likely be decided on the state of the U.S. economy and whether American voters have enough confidence to rehire President Obama for another four years to guide that economy.

But at the same time, presidential candidates challenging incumbent presidents must be able to present their own foreign policy credentials and make the case to voters that they would be a credible commander-in-chief if elected.  Especially in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans expect the president to first and foremost be focused on national security and making sure the country is safe from terrorist attack.

I believe that’s the major reason why President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004.  While the war in Iraq had divided Americans, voters reverted to their usual pattern of not turning out of office a war president.

On the other hand, the lesson of President Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, is also instructive.

The first President Bush had astronomical approval ratings in 1991 following the successful Persian Gulf War to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.  Mr. Bush’s popularity was so strong that some prominent Democrats decided not to run for president in 1992 fearing they had no chance against the man who led the country and U.S. allies to victory in the Gulf War.

But voter attention in 1992 quickly moved on from the war to economic problems at home, and one of the Democrats who quickly took note of the shift was a little known governor from Arkansas named Bill Clinton.  Clinton used his charm and formidable political skills to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination that year and then used voter discontent over the state of the economy to win the election in November, with a little help from independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.

Public opinion polls give President Obama an advantage this year on foreign policy issues.  Much of the public is tired of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and believes it’s time to invest more at home.

Four years ago, when Mr. Obama won the White House, the economy and a desire for change dominated the election campaign. That was a shift from four years earlier when the 2001 terror attacks were still fresh in the public’s mind and the No. 1 emphasis remained protecting the country from further attacks.

The outcome in 2012 is also likely to be determined by the economy, and the Romney camp knows it will be their strongest argument to the public in hopes of turning Mr. Obama out of office.  The bin Laden killing has given the Obama administration an achievement to point to on the foreign policy front and is the No. 1 reason why the president has an advantage in the foreign policy area over Romney.

Historically, this is somewhat strange territory for a Democrat.  Since Richard Nixon won in 1968 and again in 1972, voters have generally given the Republican Party the advantage on foreign policy issues.

Democrats got much of the blame for the Vietnam War, having ramped up the military effort under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.  Jimmy Carter’s re-election hopes probably crashed when the helicopter mission failed to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980, and both Presidents’ Bush and Ronald Reagan were given higher marks than their Democratic opponents on foreign policy issues.

John McCain was seen as vastly more experienced on military and foreign policy matters in 2008.  But the public was tired of the military involvements during the Bush years and then-candidate Obama’s relative inexperience did not seem to hurt him with voters.

Now in 2012, the president finds himself in the somewhat unexpected position of having an advantage on foreign policy heading into November, and you can bet we will hear a lot more about that as the campaign goes on.


Romney Shifts Focus to Obama

Posted April 27th, 2012 at 7:54 pm (UTC+0)
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A Kinder, Gentler Conservative for Independent Voters


Mitt Romney’s sweep of five northeastern primaries this past week removed any doubt that he will be the Republican presidential nominee come late August at the party convention in Tampa.

Even Newt Gingrich, of all people, seems to see the handwriting on the wall and has begun the slow, painful process of transitioning from a once high-riding presidential contender to an average citizen bogged down by $4 million in campaign debt.

Mitt romney and his wife Ann celebrate with supporters this week after he swept five Republican primary elections in the northeast U.S. Photo: AP

Romney has now begun his orchestrated pivot to the middle, attempting a reset of a campaign that for so long tried with mixed success to find votes on the far right and must now shift direction to look for support in the middle of the political spectrum.

Now, with the party nomination apparently within his grasp, Romney no longer has to worry about Gingrich or Rick Santorum on his right flank and can broaden his search for support to include independent voters, who will play their traditional crucial role in the November election. Romney can set aside most of his hard-edged appeals to conservative ideology and focus instead on the Obama record.

Expect to hear a lot in the coming months about weak economic growth, high unemployment and gasoline prices, and a general sense of drift among voters as to where the country is heading.

Romney will urge voters first and foremost to render a judgment on President Obama.  You hired him four years ago, he’ll say.  Do you want to rehire him for another four years?  They will want voters to make a snap judgment in line with Ronald Reagan’s famous debate question about incumbent Jimmy Carter in 1980, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

The Obama strategy is focused on getting voters to look at the election differently.  Make it more of a choice than a referendum.  Expect the Democratic argument to go something along the lines of, “sure, things are not what we hoped, but they are getting better, and turning the government back over to the people who messed it up in the first place is NOT the answer.”

Part of that strategy will be to tie Romney to his hard-right statements during the Republican primaries and trying to build a case that he is just another rich Republican who wants to run the country like a business — help the rich and forget the poor.

Given all the money to be spent in this election cycle, especially by the independent groups and wealthy individuals backing the two candidates, expect to see a lot of ridiculous TV attack ads from both sides that will make simplistic accusations and boil down complicated issues to lowest common denominators.

In recent days, though, some members of the Republican establishment are urging Romney to broaden his campaign songbook and not limit it to constant attacks on Obama’s record.

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and former Florida governor Jeb Bush say Romney needs to project a more positive face on his campaign, and he needs to be a lot more specific about what he would do to fix the economy.

At some point it won’t be enough just to blast the Obama record.  Romney will have to be a lot more detailed about how he wants to cut the budget, cut taxes and change the highly polarized partisan tone in Washington.

At this point many experts say there is little doubt that the 2012 matchup of Romney versus Obama will produce one of the starkest ideological choices in decades.

At the heart of the debate will be huge differences between the candidates over the role and size of the central government in Washington.


Newt to Self — I’m Finally Done

To say it was a long time coming would be an understatement.  Somehow, former House speaker Newt Gingrich finally realized that with Romney winning all five primaries last Tuesday, his chances of becoming the nominee were officially zilch.  It’s still unclear why it took so long.

Newt Gingrich did well in the debates but not so well with the Republican voters. Photo: AP

To be fair, Gingrich’s quest for the nomination has been the proverbial roller-coaster right from the start.  His campaign self-destructed early in 2011 and he was written off by the media and Republican elites alike.

But Gingrich stayed alive through free television in the form of the countless Republican candidate debates through much of 2011 and into the early part of 2012.  Gingrich was always an adept debater and quick on his feet, even back to his early days as a back-bencher in Congress in the 1980’s.

So as he did well in the debates, Republican voters began to take notice and compared him with others who were found wanting like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and yes, even Rick Santorum.  So Gingrich had his renaissance late in 2011 and the buzz got so strong at one point that he confidently predicted he would be the nominee come the party convention in Tampa in August.

But Gingrich has left a long political trail over the years and there proved to be plenty of fodder to remind voters about his foibles, thanks to the Romney money machine and the miracle (annoyance?) of relentless negative ads on TV.

So Newt was blown up in Iowa, allowing Romney and Santorum to emerge.  Gingrich made a comeback just before the South Carolina primary, thanks again to a strong debate performance when he hammered a reporter for asking about dissolution of his second marriage.

But that proved to be his last hurrah.  I was in Florida in the days preceding the primary there and the TV attacks on his record and background were relentless, even to the point that voters we talked to who supported other candidates actually felt bad because Gingrich was the target of so many attacks.

But the attacks worked.  Santorum become the darling of conservatives reluctant to accept Romney, and the rest is history.  Now Gingrich will have to revert to lining up paid speaking engagements to try and get that huge campaign debt paid off.  Or ask Romney for help in exchange for an endorsement.

One of the best lines about Gingrich comes from Republican strategist Ed Rogers, who was quoted in the Washington Post’s Post Partisan column.  Rogers gave credit to Gingrich as a “fountain of ideas” who will have a role to play in the campaign ahead.  Rogers then added that “a lot of people will listen (to Gingrich) as long as they are not asked to vote for him.”



Romney Searching for a Running Mate

Posted April 24th, 2012 at 5:24 pm (UTC+0)
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Don’t Expect a Replay of McCain-Palin from 2008


It’s one of official Washington’s favorite parlor games these days — who will the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, pick for his running mate?

Let’s start with some basic differences between Romney and John McCain, the man who ran under the Republican banner four years ago.  McCain was a political gambler, and that was never more apparent than when he chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential running mate.

Initially, Palin excited the Republican base and intrigued many independent voters.  But Palin’s lack of experience and unfamiliarity with foreign policy issues quickly became apparent and made her a liability with many.  Now it seems the Romney camp is determined to avoid repeating that kind of pick in 2012.

With that in mind, here are some pros and cons on some of the people being talked about as possible vice presidential candidates on this year’s Republican ticket:

Marco Rubio (L) and Mitt Romney campaigning together this week in Pennsylvania -- Trial run or the real thing? Photo: AP

Senator Marco Rubio — Rubio was elected with conservative Tea Party support and represents one of the foremost battleground states in presidential elections, Florida.  Rubio is young and dynamic and his Cuban-American background could prove appealing to Hispanic voters in November, and that could be crucial.

Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States and their political clout will only increase in the decades to come.  At the moment, President Obama enjoys a huge lead over Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters and selecting Rubio could help the Republican ticket cut into that advantage.

On the down side, Rubio is still relatively inexperienced on the national stage. And in light of the Palin experience from 2008, the Romney camp is likely to be especially careful about selecting someone whose readiness might become an issue in the campaign.

Senator Rob Portman — If Marco Rubio qualifies as an exciting pick, then Rob Portman of Ohio might be considered the leading safe pick.  Portman is not exciting, but has experience as a senator, congressman, trade representative and head of the budget office during the George W. Bush presidency.

Rob Portman (R) inspects severe weather damage in his home state of Ohio last month. Photo: AP

Portman would probably be seen as the clearest anti-Palin choice of the group.  He is well versed in domestic and foreign policy, a deficit hawk and someone whose credentials are probably beyond question.  He also hails from Ohio, another key swing state in the election.

No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.  But if Romney needs someone to help him with women voters, Hispanics or even independents, Portman might not be the pick.  His association with the Bush administration might also work against him, along with the desire of some Republicans for Romney to pick someone more exciting.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush — Kind of a wild card pick.  Bush initially seemed to open the door to the possibility, then tried to shut it.  He decided against a presidential run this year but he remains fairly popular within the Republican Party and is someone with a good track record of winning independent swing voters in Florida.

Jeb Bush’s biggest problem may be his last name.  Four years after George W. Bush left town, many Republicans remain concerned that Americans may not be ready for another Bush on a national ticket.  Since 1980 when George H.W. Bush became Ronald Reagan’s running mate on the Republican ticket, a Bush has been on the national ballot as either a nominee for president or vice president in six of the eight presidential election cycles ending in 2008.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush -- One Bush too many for the national ticket? Photo: AP

Beyond the three mentioned above there are several more potential running mates for Romney to choose from.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is popular with Republicans and many independents, but he could overshadow the top of the ticket.  Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is a rising star in the Republican Party, but his authorship of controversial Republican budget proposals in the House of Representatives might make him a lightning rod for Democrats opposed to big cuts in government.

Some of the lesser known figures nationally who could get consideration include Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, South Dakota Senator John Thune, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.

It’s possible Romney might reach out to former rival Rick Santorum, but he probably wouldn’t be a good fit for a presidential candidate worried about his standing with women, Hispanic and independent voters.

The ultimate wild card?  How about former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  She led the field in a recent CNN-ORC public opinion poll even though she, like virtually all of those mentioned above, professes to have no interest in the job.

One more footnote to all of this.  In the modern era of U.S. politics, and frankly throughout American history, becoming vice president has generally been a fast track to eventually becoming president.  Starting with Harry Truman in 1944, vice presidents who eventually became president include Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush.

Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president in the 1950’s and it took him two tries to win the White House, finally succeeding in 1968.

Johnson reluctantly accepted John Kennedy’s invitation to be his No. 2 in 1960 and then was largely shunned by the Kennedy White House.  That all changed in an instant on November 22nd, 1963, when the president was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

Ford was appointed vice president under Nixon after the resignation of Spiro Agnew in 1973, and later succeeded Nixon upon his resignation in 1974.  George H.W. Bush was Reagan’s main competitor for the 1980 Republican nomination but later agreed to be his running mate and served two terms as vice president before winning the White House in his own right in 1988.

So even though most people initially say they would not be interested in becoming vice president, the sweep of history suggests that those who do have political ambitions would be wise to think carefully before saying no.


Polls Show Tightening Race between Obama and Romney

Posted April 19th, 2012 at 8:35 pm (UTC+0)
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A Few States Will Play Outsized Role in the Election


November 6th is a long way off, so beware of those who would now predict which way the U.S. presidential election will go. But we do know that come Election Day, the results from a relatively small group of states will be decisive.

In the U.S. system, presidents are elected by accumulating electoral votes in the state-by-state elections in all 50 states.  First one to secure 270 electoral votes wins, no matter what the popular vote total is (see Gore, Albert, November, 2000).

President Obama is counting on the Northeast and West Coast to give him a win in the November presidential election. Photo: AP

But the political landscape dictates that certain states inevitably turn out to be more crucial than others for a candidate to win the White House.  These states are in the vaunted so-called category of “battleground states” — larger states where either party nominee could prevail, and that often hold the balance of power in our national presidential elections.

Of the 50 states that vote, about four-fifths usually lean to one party or another.  For example, Democratic candidates can usually count on doing well in the Northeast and along the Pacific coast, with lots of help from reliable large electoral states like New York, and in recent years California, to help form a presidential electoral base.

On the Republican side, look to Texas, much of the deep South, the Plains and several states in the Mountain West to form their electoral base.  That leaves in any given election year about 10 to 12 true battleground states where the results could go either way, states that usually draw most of the attention during presidential campaigns.

In 2008, President Obama basically ran the table in the key battleground states, winning all the big ones that matter (think Florida, Ohio and Colorado) and adding in a few that don’t usually vote Democratic (Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia).

This year looks to be a different story.  Gone are the days when Mr. Obama could present himself as an agent of change with a clean slate.  Now he has to defend his record in office, especially on the economy, and that could be a tall order in the most competitive states this November where independent or swing voters will probably be the deciding group between the president and Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney is looking to the Midwest and the South to put him on top in November. Photo: AP

One measuring stick since 1960 has been to look at three states—Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.  The candidate who wins two out of those three has gone on to win the presidency every time since then.  Pennsylvania leans Democratic, so the true swing states are Florida and Ohio.  I think it’s still a good test so if you can accurately predict which candidate can nail down two of those three states, you’ve likely picked the winning candidate.

But what President Obama did in 2008 was expand the electoral battleground for Democrats, at least for that cycle.  The question is will it hold true again this year?  By winning Colorado in the West, plus Virginia and North Carolina in the South, the Obama team has set up more possible paths to victory in 2012 by giving them more options to put together a winning coalition.

Given the slip in the president’s popularity as he seeks a second term, though, I would think the first line of states the president’s team will be worried about will include Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, all narrowly won four years ago and prime pickup possibilities for Romney and the Republicans.

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but not the electoral votes. Photo: AP

One key to this year’s election will be how the two parties do among the fastest growing minority group, Hispanics.  Latinos now account for about 16 percent of the U.S. population and will make up about 29 percent by 2050.

In 2008, President Obama won 67 percent of the Hispanic vote against John McCain.  A recent Washington Post poll found Mitt Romney was viewed favorably by 32 percent of Hispanic voters, while 39 percent had a negative view of him from the Republican primaries.

Romney is going to have to do a lot better than that among Hispanic voters, who will play a key role in several swing states including Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and North Carolina.

Some Republicans worry that the angry rhetoric over illegal immigration from the Republican debates, both this year and last, has alienated Hispanic voters.  But Romney advisors argue that his clear path to the nomination now will allow him to more carefully court Latinos, especially those who are regular church-goers and who tend to be conservative on social issues.

Still, with all the talk in the campaign about how to stop illegal immigrants, Romney may have an uphill climb with a voting group that is only going to grow in influence in the decades to come.





Romney Must Bind Own Party and Appeal to Independents

Posted April 13th, 2012 at 5:14 pm (UTC+0)
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Is He up to the General Election Two-step?


No doubt about it, earlier this week the U.S. election battlefield shifted in a major way.  No more carpet-bombing of Mitt Romney ads attacking Rick Santorum and no more rants from Santorum warning that Romney will turn into a carbon copy of President Obama.

Ann Romney joins her husband Mitt in trying to win over women voters to the Republican side. Photo: AP

We are not in Kansas anymore, or any other of the primary states for that matter, and Romney must now shift most of his attention to the coming general election campaign against the president while at the same time shoring up a somewhat shaky conservative Republican Party base.

Romney and his wife Ann plunged into this big-time this week with a focus on luring back some women voters who, according to the polls, are finding his campaign wanting.

The latest skirmish also featured a back and forth between Ann Romney and Democratic strategist Hillary Rosen as they argued over the role of modern women both at home and in the workplace.  Eventually many Democrats, including the president and First Lady, weighed in in defense of Ann Romney in an attempt to defuse an issue that was beginning to hurt the Democrats.

Expect this kind of skirmishing to continue right up to the election in November. Obama and the Democrats will try to maximize what is a pretty wide gender gap at the moment while Republicans will do all they can to narrow that gap and win back some of those moderate women voters who were put off by the Republican primaries and all the talk of birth control and abortion.

Getting more women on board is crucial to Mitt Romney's presidential chances. Photo: AP

The gender gap breakdown is important in presidential politics.  When it’s big and women heavily favor Democrats, like when Bill Clinton ran in 1992 and Barack Obama four years ago, it’s usually a recipe for a Democratic victory.  But if the gap is narrow and is combined with a huge Republican advantage among men, then the White House usually goes Republican.

Campaigning for the November presidential election is already looking pretty divisive on a number of fronts.  In addition to the gender gap, there is the issue of rich versus poor, which the president and Democrats in Congress seem eager to push.  The Republicans will continue to push concerns about the debt, high taxes and the size of government. They’ll also try to stay away from debating whether tax cuts for the wealthy are a good idea if they benefit Wall Street moguls who had a role in the financial meltdown.

Add to that immigration, where Hispanic voters are a very important piece of the puzzle, and health care, where the Supreme Court will render a judgment soon on the president’s health care law, and you have a whole bushel of issues that are divisive and polarizing and that will color the election landscape between now and November.

Polls show the president has an edge among women voters, but will it last? Photo: AP

But Romney will have to keep looking over his right shoulder now and then as well.  Some of the conservative evangelical leaders have been quoted as saying they will probably get in line behind him for the election, but that there will be a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for him personally as the Republican candidate.  That enthusiasm, they say, will have to come from a united belief in the importance of preventing President Obama from winning a second term in office.

I do think a lot of that enthusiasm will come together eventually, with support not only from social conservatives but also from Tea Party activists who realize they will have only chance, November 6th, to prevent the president from holding forth in Washington for another four years.

Still, Romney’s less than inspiring performance among conservative activists in the primaries and caucuses could come back to haunt him if he is unable to rally those groups between now and November.


Afghanistan as U.S. Election Issue

The recent polls on domestic backing for the war in Afghanistan are grim and signal a new low in support.  The latest Washington Post-ABC News survey found 66 percent of those asked do not believe the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, a record high.  Thirty percent continue to believe the war is worth the effort.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out for both the president’s re-election campaign and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.  The president has a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2014, but recent incidents in Afghanistan seem to have soured the American public on the conflict even more, and voters might be eager to see that timetable sped up if the violence continues, especially when it targets U.S. troops.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan could be a campaign issue. Photo: AP

Mitt Romney has talked a lot about Afghanistan during the Republican primaries, insisting the U.S. must stay the course to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.  He also promises that he will listen to commanders on the ground as to when the right time comes to pull out U.S. forces.

The latest Post-ABC poll also found that for the first time a majority of Republicans now believe the war in Afghanistan has not been worth it.  We’ll have to see how much Romney talks up the war during the general election campaign or whether he relegates it even further into the background as he focuses on the economy, jobs and repealing the president’s health care law, known as “Obama-care.”

The polls show there is little doubt that Americans are suffering from war fatigue from the twin conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and that most people believe it is time to come home and focus on domestic issues, especially the economy.

Another question is how will the public’s fatigue with Afghanistan plays into an election year debate over what to do about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Romney and many of the other Republican contenders talked tough about Iran throughout the primaries, and tried to use that as an example of where they believe the president was “soft” in foreign policy.  There is little doubt many Americans are concerned about the prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons, but in a country suffering from war fatigue, just how far can Romney push the idea of an aggressive U.S. stance against Iran when his audience is no longer just conservatives, but moderate swing voters as well?


Game on Between Obama and Romney

Posted April 11th, 2012 at 7:05 pm (UTC+0)


Romney Must Now Heal Party and Prepare for General Election


There’s an old adage in show business that “you always to leave them wanting more,” and so Rick Santorum wisely decided to get out of the race while the getting was good.

Rick Santorum pulls out of the Republican primaries, clearing the way for Mitt Romney to capture the party's presidential nomination. Photo: AP

First off, there was no path for him to win the Republican Party presidential nomination; nor was there a viable strategy to deny Mitt Romney that nomination at this point.  Secondly, getting out now avoided the risk of a primary defeat in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, and that could help him down the line if he decides to run again four or even eight years from now.

Santorum’s decision is also a gift for Romney, who can finally begin to make a full pivot away from the Republican primary infighting and turn his full attention to a general election campaign against President Obama in November, which the Romney camp has been itching to do this for months.  It also vindicates the Obama campaign strategy begun last year that basically ignored all the other Republican contenders and focused in like a laser beam on Romney.

So here we go.  This is the playing field between now and the election on November 6th.  For the moment, advantage President Obama. The polls show he is more likeable than Romney and the president has also built up a huge advantage among women and Hispanic voters, at least at this early stage.

Romney already realizes he’s got some work to do to reduce the gender gap and his wife Ann will have to play a major role in that effort.  Republican presidential candidates can win the White House as long as they maintain a healthy advantage among men and keep their deficit with women voters to a manageable number, say five or six percent.  Some recent polls in battleground states give the president an 18-point advantage over Romney with women voters and that, combined with huge support from the Hispanic community, could put the likely Republican nominee in a real bind come November.

In the end, though, it will come down to the state of the U.S. economy and whether a majority of voters believe the country is headed in the right direction and whether the president is deserving of re-election.  Throughout U.S. history, incumbents generally, though not always, get the benefit of the doubt.

Romney now must reintroduce himself to the public.  To some extent, he can shed the ball and chain of having to bend to the far right to win votes and try to recast himself as a more moderate candidate with business experience who can fix America’s economic problems.

Romney campaign now focusing on President Obama in November general election. Photo: AP

It’s true that Romney’s best chance will come if enough voters decide they can’t handle another four years of President Obama and are so downcast about the economy that they decide to fire the incumbent and take a chance with somebody new.

But for that to happen, Romney has to create a new narrative about himself — why he is White House-worthy and what his vision for the country would be as commander in chief.  Sure, he benefits if people decide to turn out the incumbent.  But voters tend to make a more personal investment in presidential candidates than with other votes for public office, and Mitt Romney is going to have to construct an argument why electing him president is not just good for the economy in the short term, but is good for the country as a whole in the long term.


Santorum Made his Mark in 2012

The lingering image of Rick Santorum from last year was the guy on the fringes of the TV debates, angry he couldn’t get a word in and basically written off by the media and many in his own party.  But under the radar screen, Santorum was quietly putting together a mini-movement in the cornfields of Iowa, and it all came together when he pulled off a surprise (though delayed) victory in the Iowa caucuses in January.

Santorum effectively won the primary to become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and he succeeded where Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry had failed.  Like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Pat Robertson in 1988, Santorum was able to make his pitch to social conservatives and evangelical Christians looking for someone who could make an argument beyond just fixing the U.S. economy.

Social conservatives remain an important activist group within the Republican Party and that will ensure that at the very least, Santorum will be a featured dinner speaker at social conservative forums for the foreseeable future.  Santorum has built a national name with these voters that might pay off should he decide to make another run for the White House somewhere down the line.

Presuming Romney is the Republican nominee, he will be the third Republican in recent cycles to have won the nomination after failing in an earlier bid.  Bob Dole won in 1996 after failed bids in 1980 and 1988, and John McCain won the nomination four years ago after having lost to George W. Bush in a bitter primary contest in 2000.

I’m also struck that for the second cycle in a row, the Republicans appear to be on the verge of nominating someone who is not fully trusted by the party’s conservative wing.  It seems that McCain’s reputation as a maverick and Romney’s previous stance as a Massachusetts moderate were not fatal to them winning the nomination of a party that regards itself as the conservative voice in U.S. politics.


Obama and Romney Increasingly Set Sights on Each Other

Posted April 9th, 2012 at 5:09 pm (UTC+0)


Preview of November Campaign


We got a preview of the 2012 general election campaign in recent days and let’s just say it’s going to come up a bit short in the ‘sweetness and light’ department.

President Obama's campaign has kept its eye on Romney for months as likely opponent in November. Photo: AP

The Obama campaign has been zeroing in on the Romney camp for months.  From the beginning, the White House politicos were convinced that Romney’s money and organization made him the favorite to win the Republican nomination, and recent events have obviously proven that theory to be correct.  So week after week, Democratic attacks ads have focused in on the Romney campaign, hoping to use the attacks from his rivals to soften him up for the general election push leading up to November.

By the way, we’re not saying here the Republican race is technically over yet.  It isn’t.  But it seems pretty implausible, if not downright impossible at this point, to see how Rick Santorum could overtake Romney between now and the convention.  So, we’ll operate on the theory that Romney is the nominee-in-waiting at the very least.  Add to that comments Newt Gingrich made on Fox News Sunday that Romney is “far and away” the most likely Republican nominee, and it seems as though reality is slowly setting in on at least some of Romney’s rivals.

As we head toward the general election, both Republicans and Democrats are likely to focus in on a similar theme—authenticity.  The tenor of the Democratic attacks on Romney for months has been that he made his career as a moderate Republican in Massachusetts — going way back to his Senate race against Ted Kennedy in 1994 and continuing to 2002 when he won election as governor of the state.

So one of the undercurrents this fall will be who is the real Mitt Romney?  Is he a true conservative as he now claims, or is he really a moderate who positioned himself enough to the right to win the Republican nomination?

Likewise, the Romney campaign will try to take advantage of President Obama’s recent comment to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he will have greater political flexibility once he wins a second term.  Romney seized on this during a recent speech in Washington to accuse the president of waging a “hide and seek campaign” that will mask his true intentions should he win a second term in November.

Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney starting to focus on November general election instead of party primaries. Photo: AP

Romney’s camp will try to use the Obama “flexibility” comments to raise doubts among independent voters about where the president really wants to take the country should he win another four-year term in November.

You can expect a lot of negative TV ads from both sides between now and the general election.  Both campaigns will be well-funded and will have plenty of background support from friendly Super PAC organizations more than happy to spend millions of dollars to tear down opponents.

It will likely stay negative because the polls suggest the election will be close.  That means the Romney camp will always believe they have chance.  They have to make the election about President Obama, make it a referendum on his handling of the economy and hope the voters give the president a big thumbs-down.

For the Obama campaign, they would prefer to make the election a choice in November, not a referendum.  A choice of staying the course and keeping the economy on an upward trend or returning to Republican policies that they believe caused many of the problems in the first place.  Of course, all of this depends on the economy continuing to improve and that things won’t be derailed by rising gasoline prices.  Like the man said in that great film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, “There’s always the unexpected!”


Supreme Court Politics


The recent back and forth over the Supreme Court and its consideration of the Obama health care law is likely another preview of the coming presidential campaign.  The president walked back some comments that a high court decision to strike down part or all of his health care law would be “unprecedented”, but that didn’t stop Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell from warning that Mr. Obama had crossed “a dangerous line” in his comments on the court and should “back off.”

The betting among many experts is that the five conservative-leaning justices will probably vote to strike down at least the individual mandate in the law requiring everyone to buy health insurance.  If that happens, the question then becomes what would the political fallout be for the president and Republicans?

It seems as though the president is signaling that he would make the court a big of a political target in hopes of whipping up his base of supporters who generally support the health care reform effort.  No doubt the Democrats would remind voters about the infamous Bush v. Gore decision of 2000 and the 2010 Citizens United case that opened the floodgates for unlimited campaign spending by unions, corporations and wealthy individuals.

President Roosevelt also had his arguments with the Supreme Court in the 1930s. Photo archives.

Mr. Obama wouldn’t be the first sitting president to try to turn legal setbacks at the Supreme Court into political gain.  In 1937, fresh off a second term re-election victory, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed expanding the number of Supreme Court justices from nine to 15 after the court invalidated several New Deal measures passed by Congress.  Roosevelt’s attempt to “pack the court,” as the saying goes, turned out to be a political failure, his first major miscalculation in office.

In the following months, however, the Supreme Court upheld a series of New Deal initiatives including the Social Security Act, as the legal tide seemed to turn in the president’s favor.  Roosevelt effectively was able to make over the court anyway over the next four years since he got to appoint seven new justices to replace incumbents who had either died or retired.

The high court’s reputation may have suffered a bit in recent years following the Bush-Gore decision in 2000 and the campaign finance case in 2010, but public opinion polls still show that the public generally has high regard for the Supreme Court as an institution, something that should cause any president to think twice before launching a political critique.

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.


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