Friday, May 17, 2024

Romney’s Convention Challenge

According to historical precedent, the 2012 presidential election shouldn't be nearly as close as it is today. Previously, when an incumbent president ran for re-election after presiding over a sluggish economy with unemployment above 8%, he was usually defeated. That is what happened in 1980 and 1992, and that is what should be happening now. Few presidents have botched the handling of the US economy as badly as Barack Obama. He should be trailing badly in the national polls, and his party should be dreading the prospect of disaster at the polls on Election Day.

But that is not the case. Obama has not only remained competitive, but actually built a slight lead in the race by stealing the initiative from his Republican challenger. Mitt Romney made the crucial mistake of allowing the Obama campaign to define him negatively in the eyes of many voters before he made a serious effort to introduce himself to them. He has let Obama set the campaign agenda, and focus it on tangential issues which have nothing to do with the country’s future. This week, at the Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida, Romney got his last chance to break through Obama’s negative noise and introduce himself and his positive campaign agenda to the swing voters who will determine the outcome of the November 6 election.
The Republicans seemed to be galvanized at the Tampa convention, both by Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Paul Ryan. Despite the fact that the program was truncated by a day due to Hurricane Isaac which passed nearby in the Gulf of Mexico, the GOP candidates, along with the party’s other rising stars, such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, succeeded in giving their campaign a strong push, and a preview of its future leaders. By contrast, the Democrats will be reaching back to Bill Clinton to add excitement to their convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, which will renominate Obama next week.


Win or lose, this will be Obama’s last election, but the Democrats cannot afford to take another drubbing like the one they suffered in the 2010 midterm election. If they lose control over the Senate as well as the White House in November, they will be facing a bleak future in Washington over the next 2, 4 or 8 years.


They have something to be worried about. Over the past three years, Obama has presided over the weakest economic recovery since World War II. The unemployment rate has been stuck for more than 3 years above 8%, real income for middle class families is falling, and the economic outlook extending into next year is dismal. Polls show that a majority of voters are convinced the country is headed in the wrong direction, and that they believe that Obama’s economic policies have failed.




So why does Obama hold a small lead in overall popularity over Romney, and a somewhat larger margin in the projected Electoral College vote count.


At this point, the outcome of the election is still too close to call. It can still be swayed by events between now and Election Day, ranging from the outbreak of a war between Israel and Iran, to a eurozone financial crisis, or a major gaffe on the campaign trail. Yet if the election were to be held tomorrow, Obama would probably win, and the proper questions to ask is “Why?”


Everyone knows that when he took office in 2009, Obama inherited an economy that was in bad shape, but after almost 4 years, he has failed to turn it around, and most voters no longer buy his excuses for that failure. They consider his 2009 stimulus package to be an $800 billion failure. He then wasted more than a year pushing through his unpopular health care reform bill against the wishes of the American public. That set the stage for a midterm election which resulted in Obama effectively losing the ability to pass his liberal legislative agenda.


Since then, Obama has tried to take advantage of the political gridlock which he created by trying to blame it on the Republicans, whom he accuses of working for the wealthy and against the interests of middle class voters.


The selection of Mitt Romney as Obama’s opponent played perfectly into the president’s game plan. Romney’s great personal wealth as a very successful venture capitalist made him the perfect target for Obama’s bitter liberal class warfare rhetoric.




Romney’s tactic during the GOP primary campaign of downplaying his moderate past, his lack of a natural political personality, and his reluctance to reveal many details of his private life meant that even many GOP voters still don’t have a clear picture of who he really is. This made him the perfect target for the well-funded and merciless campaign of negative ads which Obama launched even before Romney wrapped up the GOP nomination. By the time Romney realized that his candidacy was in trouble, it was too late to do much about it.


Romney’s campaign coffers had been emptied by the long GOP primary contest, and the Republicans could not answer the accusations in the saturation negative ad campaign that Obama unleashed in the battleground states. The most outrageous charges generally fail to withstand close inspection by media fact checkers, but they came one right after the other, keeping the Romney camp on the defensive, and dominating the headlines with tangential charges. Obama’s many allies in the national media were all too happy to oblige him by keeping up the pressure on Romney.




Even Arthur Brisbane, the Public Editor of the most respected newspaper in America, The New York Times, in his final essay before stepping down from the post after two years, acknowledged that while the paper’s news coverage is ostensibly politically neutral, the liberal bias of its writers and staffers across its departments is painfully obvious. They “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism.” As a result, he concludes that their biased “worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of the Times” news coverage, especially with respect to liberal social issues, which they treat “more like causes than news subjects.”


Brisbane says that this is particularly true in the paper’s coverage of the national presidential campaign, even though in this area the editors and writers are still careful to enforce a pro forma policy giving the illusion of journalistic fairness and balance.


The is in line with the typical liberal media technique of defending itself against accusations of bias by using surveys which simply add up the number of articles about Obama and Romney and judging their treatment to be fair if the totals are about equal, while totally ignoring the liberal bias which “bleeds through” many of the articles. It is like arguing that the New York Times is fair towards Israel simply because Israel is the subject of at least as many stories in the paper as the Palestinians.




Brisbane also points to the results of a new study by the Pew Research Center that among Republicans in particular, the paper’s “believability” has dropped precipitously. In other words, the Times deliberately departed from its long tradition as the “newspaper of record,” striving to win universal acceptance as the ultimate arbiter of objective truth in news coverage. Instead, according to Brisbane, the Times news coverage, especially on political stories, is increasingly seen as advocacy journalism, deliberately catering to a liberal “audience [which] formed around the paper’s political-cultural worldview.”


The Times’ Public Editor concludes that “there is no conspiracy” at the Times that is consciously shaping its message. Rather, the liberal bias in the paper is due to a hive-like mentality that “is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds – a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.”


Brisbane praises the Times management for maintaining “an unmatched investment in journalism,” at a time when major national newspapers are cutting back drastically on the staff in their newsrooms. As a result, the Times has the resources to consistently provide the best, in-depth coverage available on important breaking news stories anywhere in the world. But, according to Brisbane, its news coverage is still lacking sufficient “transparency, accountability and humility.”


Furthermore, as Brisbane notes, the Times management has made a conscious effort to distribute its journalistic content, complete with its inherent biases, as widely as possible in cyberspace, using social media as well as its own homepage and other online outlets, in an effort to survive economically in an era in which the daily print newspaper has become an endangered species.


Not surprisingly, the Times executive editor, Jill Abramson, disagrees with Brisbane’s criticisms, admitting only that, “in covering some social and cultural issues, the Times sometimes reflects its urban and cosmopolitan base.” But Abramson deliberately ignores the fact that those include some of the most controversial social and cultural issues in American politics today.




A prime example of this bias can be found in a Sunday editorial in the Times which blasted Paul Ryan for his “social extremism.” The editorial reserves its harshest criticism for Ryan’s consistently pro-life and pro-traditional marriage views, without even once mentioning that they originate with his Catholic beliefs, and which unconsciously reflects the paper’s strong anti-religious bias, which Abramson explains as a reflection of its “cosmopolitan” reader base.


It is difficult to overestimate how much this liberal bias in the Times reporting of the presidential election has influenced the coverage by the rest of the mainstream media, by establishing the headline stories in each news cycle and setting the overall tone of the coverage. This has no doubt contributed to Obama’s ability so far to largely escape personal political responsibility for his botched handling of the economy, even though disenchanted voters have very specific objections to his policies and priorities. It also helps to explain why Obama’s negative attacks have been successful so far in tarnishing the personal reputations of the GOP candidates, and mocking traditional social values.




Invariably, whenever Obama has stumbled during the campaign with a telling or embarrassing comment, it has been dismissed by the Times and the mainstream media which follows their example as a one-time gaffe of no lasting significance. When Obama’s attack ads have been frequently exposed as deliberately misleading or outright lies, the Times treats that as merely politics as usual which should not tarnish Obama’s reputation. Furthermore, whenever confronted with the results of its biased coverage of the race, reflected by Obama’s surprisingly high poll ratings, the media invariably denies its responsibility, and attributes it to the president’s “likability,” which is, in fact, a direct result of the biased way in which the media has consistently portrayed him.


On the other hand, the mainstream media, following the lead of the Times, tends to dismiss Romney’s criticisms of the failure of Obama’s economic policies and his proposed alternatives. It also characterized Romney’s brilliant choice of Ryan as his running mate as an act of political desperation rather than a move that effectively focuses the campaign on the issues and away from Obama’s mudslinging.




This week’s Republican national convention was doubly important, because it gave Romney and Ryan an opportunity to address a national voter audience at length and largely unfiltered by the liberal media. In previous years, the national networks provided full, gavel-to-gavel convention coverage, rather than the one hour a night in prime time they give now, but an hour a night is still better than nothing.


After the conventions, the advantage in campaign ad money will shift decisively to the Republicans, giving them a the opportunity to establish their own positive personal credentials and to explain the policies they want to institute, instead of merely responding to Obama’s endless stream of personal attack ads.


There is a real question, however, as to how many voters around the country are still undecided, as well as the number of those who say that they have made up their minds, but still could be convinced to change their minds.


According to many national surveys, the number of undecideds is only about 8%, but it is much harder to say with accuracy how many of those “persuadables” will change their minds between now and November 6.


Many voters, especially those in the battleground states where the Obama campaign has launched saturation media buys for its negative ads, may have judged Romney harshly based upon those accusations. The Republicans are hoping to change many of those minds once Romney and Ryan introduce themselves and explain their goals, policies and values in detail during the live national media coverage of the GOP convention.




Steven Law, president of American Crossroads, a conservative PAC, has announced plans to spend $300 million in a media effort to defeat Obama and his liberal supporters. In a Wall Street Journal interview, he says that he is optimistic that there are enough centrist voters who are convinced that Obama cannot solve the country’s problems which “have only widened and deepened.”


He says that voters who claim to be undecided “are among the people who are the most sour about the economy and how Obama’s doing his job,” and are likely to vote for Romney if they can be persuaded that he has the ability to fix the economy.


The race is still virtually tied in the polls, even though Obama and his PACS have spent more than $100 million on negative ads attacking Romney. While Obama holds narrow leads in most of the swing states, his support is below 50% in all of them. That means that even some of his supporters are unhappy with his leadership, and would vote for Romney if they can be convinced that he is an acceptable alternative.


Romney’s main task, starting with his message at the GOP convention in Tampa, is to redefine himself as someone who is very different from the negative image portrayed in Obama’s attack ads.


If Romney can come across as the decent, competent, and successful person he is, the negative impression created by Obama’s misleading ads can be dispelled, especially among independent voters, very quickly.




Other analysts blame the Romney’s campaign’s single-minded ad strategy for allowing Obama to demonize Romney in voters’ eyes before he could define himself. Part of the problem was that Romney’s campaign used much of its cash to sew up the GOP nomination. But the strategy in Romney’s campaign, until very recently, was that any ad which did not focus on the failure of Obama’s economic policies was a waste of time and money. They refused to use any part of their early campaign ads to introduce Romney to voters as someone whom they could understand and trust.


That was why, when the Obama campaign unleashed its negative ads falsely accusing Romney of destroying and outsourcing jobs during his years of Bain Capital, hiding his wealth in offshore bank accounts and failing to pay income taxes, voters did not have a positive image of Romney to insulate him from those charges.


Liberals who support Obama’s policies are most probably out of reach of the Romney campaign at this point. Romney’s main target is independent voters who disapprove of Obama’s policies, but whose opinion of Romney may have been influenced by the negative ads. The campaign’s goal is to convince them that Romney is “likable enough” to qualify as an acceptable replacement for Obama as president.




Most of the new positive Romney ad effort will be directed at voters in the same 11 battleground states where Obama ran most of his negative ads. Romney’s supporters attribute Obama’s slight current lead in 7 out of those 11 states, with the exception of North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Missouri, to that huge ad investment. The Romney campaign will try to reverse that lead between now and Election Day with positive ads about their candidate which are now starting to run.


The Republican National Committee is also running an effective new series of low-key ads aimed at independent voters who supported Obama in 2008. It portrays the president’s economic policies as a well-intentioned failure, and reassures them that it is all right to support Romney as an alternative.


Law confirms that, “when we do focus groups, we only talk to people in the middle who voted for Obama in 2008 but are undecided.”


His research shows that most of those voters finally abandoned their support for Obama in the summer of 2011, when he was unwilling to finalize an agreement with House Speaker John Boehner to resolve the debt-limit fight. According to Law, that was the “point at which people began to seriously doubt whether President Obama had the skills necessary to solve the most important problems.”


They now see Obama as someone who “produces controversy and fights and clashes [instead of] the result that people want.” By contrast, American Crossroads will promote Romney as a president capable of delivering solutions.




This analysis of the race seems to be confirmed by the strategy behind Obama’s campaign, which is still overwhelmingly negative. Obama’s continued use of class warfare rhetoric attacking business and the wealthy, and promising more government deficit spending seem aimed more at turning out his liberal base voters rather than convincing the independents who voted for him 4 years ago that he can create the jobs which the economy needs. Instead, the clear emphasis of the Obama campaign is to try to make undecided voters more fearful of Romney rather than trying to convince them that the president deserves a second term.


Law says he believes that Obama’s class warfare rhetoric is not working “as well right now as it did last year. People seem to be increasingly in a mood for problems to get fixed. And the ideological filter or the class filter is becoming less interesting.” He also says that Romney’s most attractive quality “is that he’s somebody who dispassionately fixes problems.”


The biggest unanswered question is why the Romney campaign has not been more effective in getting that message across to voters.


He also reports the latest batch of Obama campaign ads attacking Romney for supporting the interests of the wealthy have been surprisingly ineffective with swing voters, who told interviewers that they are growing tired of hearing these charges from the president.


Law’s group will not be running ads calling Obama too radical or ideological, because he has found that swing voters are “resistant” to those ideas. Instead, he supports the latest series of Romney ads, which highlight Obama’s reversal of work requirements for welfare recipients, undoing the popular welfare reforms passed with bi-partisan support during the Clinton administration. Law says that his focus groups indicate that the issue is “definitely resonating with swing voters, including those who were Obama voters in 2008.” But the issue must be handled with sensitivity, holding the failure of Obama’s policies responsible for more people being on welfare today, rather than blaming those who are on welfare because there simply aren’t enough jobs out there for them.




The single most potent issue for the Romney campaign remains the growing economic insecurity of many voters. That is also why Paul Ryan’s pro-growth tax reform ideas have reinvigorated Romney’s campaign.


Ryan’s presence on the ticket has also revived Obamacare as a winning issue for Republicans. Many older voters object to Obama’s removal of $700 billion from the Medicare budget over the next decade to subsidize care for those without health care coverage. These seniors rightfully fear that the quality and availability of the medical care they need will be reduced as a result.


Undoubtedly, Obama will get almost all of the black vote, but it is not clear whether as many black voters will go to the polls as did 4 years ago. Similarly, the Obama campaign has failed to regenerate the same high level of grass roots enthusiasm for their candidate that he enjoyed in 2008. Finally, this time it will be Romney rather than Obama who will enjoy a clear money advantage during the home stretch of this long presidential campaign over the next two months.


Strategically, for Romney to win in the Electoral College, he needs to win most of the normally “red” states that Obama carried in 2008, such as Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Nevada and Iowa, as well as the traditional battleground states, such as Florida and the Midwest’s Rust Belt.




Over the past week, the Romney campaign has started to close the gap in several key states. The addition of Ryan to the ticket has put his home state, Wisconsin, in play. Romney is closing the gap with Obama in Michigan and Pennsylvania. Florida is now a virtual dead heat.


The poll results are also expected to get closer as the pollsters change their survey targets from registered voters to “likely” voters. That should give a sense of how much the heightened enthusiasm of those who want to deny Obama a second term will impact the outcome of the election.


The first such survey, released last week by Fox News, shows Romney holding a very narrow 45-44 percent lead over Obama, which is within the margin of error of the poll, which means that it is a statistical tie.


It also offers an interesting breakdown of the level of support from each voter group for the candidates. Romney is favored by white voters as a whole, by 53-36 percent, white Evangelical Christians by 70-18 percent, married voters by 51-38 percent, men by 48-40 percent and seniors by 50-41 percent.


Obama holds a commanding lead among black voters by 86-6 percent, and lesser advantages among women by 48-42 percent, lower income households by 53-35 percent, young voters by 48-39 percent and unmarried voters by 55-34 percent.


In a key reversal, independents now support Romney by 42-32 percent. Exit polls in 2008 showed Obama winning them by 52-44 percent over John McCain.


Among those one in ten voters who said they were undecided, 55 percent said they disapprove of Obama’s job performance, while only 17 percent think the country has improved since he became president four years ago.


Undecided voters tend to view Romney more negatively than positively by 28 percentage points, demonstrating just how much work the Republicans need to do between now and Election Day to repair his image.



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