Now that Republicans and Democrats have filled out their presidential dance cards with real people, it’s a good time to ask whether it will make all that much difference in the fall presidential election.
There was never any doubt the Democratic candidate would be Barack Obama. He will carry on his shoulders his record as president since 2009. But the race for a Republican contender has produced a man who is universally acclaimed the weakest Republican nominee in decades.
Mitt Romney’s lackluster performance on the stump was well known at the start of the race. But his scorched earth advertising campaigns against Republican opponents and simultaneous kowtowing to the party’s extreme right on birth control and immigration have left the general public skeptical about what lies at the man’s core.
Polling at the Starting Line
The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released April 20 provides a good baseline for looking at the start of the general election campaign. Among women, Romney is now running 12 points behind the President. Among Hispanics, the difference is 47 points. Among African Americans, its 86 points. In the 18-34 age groups, Obama holds a 26-point advantage.
And yet overall, Romney trails the President by only six points, 49 to 43, based on traditional Republican support among whites, males and suburban voters––and the right track-wrong track numbers favor anyone who can get America off its present track.
The bad news for Romney in the NBC poll is that when voters were asked a series of questions about the qualities they want to see in a president––Is he caring, honest, concerned about the middle class, a good commander in chief, etc––Obama beats the challenger in 11 of 13 categories. For instance, which candidate is “more easygoing and likeable?” Obama, 54 percent, Romney, 18
In other polls, “likeability” is otherwise measured by a candidate’s “favorable-unfavorable” ratings. Here again, Romney is at a considerable disadvantage. He is seen favorably by 35 percent of voters, but unfavorably by 47 percent, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. That 12-point deficit is the largest recorded at this point in a presidential race in the eight seasons (28 years) that ABC has asked the question. Nate Silver points out in the New York Times this is not necessarily fatal. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton also started their race with 11-point favorable-unfavorable deficits. Clinton went on to win with a 12-point advantage; Dole never rose much higher.
Of Course, He’s Likable
Romney’s campaign staff has moved deftly to humanize their candidate. Tuesday night’s “Better America” speech was filled promises to give voters a better look in the future at the personal side of the candidate (and especially his more popular wife Ann). Mitt and Ann have done an interview together with George Stephanopoulos on ABC. A People magazine spread will follow soon. How long until Seamus the dog gets his up-close-and-personal turn in the limelight? By the time the Romneys are re-introduced to America at the August Republican convention, you better like him, or somebody’s going to get fired.
Romney will never transform into Mr. Warm and Fuzzy, but there is a significant element of the Republican Party that could care less. If Romney cannot be shaped to look more like the average American, their aim is to shape the narrative of the coming campaign to make the American voter believe he is the solution to Americas economic problems because he is not Barack Obama.
But Who Cares?
Republicans and Democrats are not the only players in this election. The wild cards in the mix are the Super PACs, those unregulated expressors of free speech the Supreme Court loosed upon the land in the 5-4 Citizens United decision two years ago. The Federal Election Commission lists 250 of them, and counting. Those that are worth watching the closest this election cycle are the Republican-leaning Super PACs affiliated with a group called American Crossroads.
Through the long primary process, George W. Bush’s former political strategist Karl Rove has been a largely neutral and astute observer of Republican politics as a commentator on Fox TV News, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, and frequent poster in the political Twittersphere. At the same time, working with the former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, he has created an interwoven network of Super PACs around American Crossroads––Crossroads GPS and American Action Network share the same Virginia offices––that raised $100 million over the last year to produce “social advocacy” ads for the betterment of society. Over 70 percent of that money came in chunks of $1 million or more from two dozen individual donors.
As Frank Rick wrote this week in a must-see article in New York Magazine, this is “the year of Sugar Daddy. Inflamed by Obama-hatred, awash in self-pity, and empowered by myriad indulgent court and Federal Election Commission rulings, an outsize posse of of superrich white men will spend whatever it takes to have its way with the body politic and, if victorious, with the country itself.”
It doesn’t matter to them whether Mitt Romney is the candidate or not. Their aim is to lay down such a heavy barrage of “independent” anti-Obama ads that no one will care who the alternative is. And no one will notice that two of American Crossroads key organizers, Gillespie and former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, are now senior advisers to the Romney campaign, or that Carl Forti, Romney’s former national political director in 2008, is the chief political strategist for American Crossroads––a position he held even as he was launching another pro-Romney Super PAC “Restore Our Future” that spent $42 million in the primaries bringing down Romney’s Republican opponents. The notion that these Super PACs and the Romney campaign are not coordinating their efforts is a fictional fig leaf.
The Summer Air Wars
The general view among political types is that the narrative of this campaign will ebb and flow based on how well the economic recovery is going. Last week, Crossroads GPS started a $20 million ad campaign in the swing states to give voters “handles” for judging that. The first spot focused on energy, claiming Obama’s opposition to the Keystone pipeline, shale exploration and drilling on federal lands has led to higher gas prices. More negative ads are coming soon on jobs, health care and federal spending, not all from Crossroads GPS. Forti told The Associated Press he anticipates about 20 anti-Obama Super PACs will be coordinating their efforts before the election is over. The Super PACs are free to accuse Obama of all manner of malfeasance in their TV advertising. (And Romney will never have to say at the end, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.”)
Old School Politics
I’m still of the school that believes when Election Day rolls around, we go into the polling booth and punch the ticket for a real person. In nine out of ten cases, that’s someone who seems to be most like us. Temperament does matter because voters understand that they don’t understand all the issues; so we want to put in the White House somebody who will apply our values to the critical decisions ahead. I want a president who will care about what I care about, level with me honestly about what he is doing, then do it.
The irony of this election cycle is that the cumulative effect of all the negative advertising may be the demonizing of both candidates. Voters already believe there is a plague over both parties. (See the Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton article in the National Journal “In Nothing We Trust”.) If that spreads to the party nominees, the desire to vote for Obama or Romney will give way to baser instincts: Where’s mine?
The hope that Obama inspired and embodied four years ago works against him in this election cycle. If he’s the Messiah, why aren’t we there yet? Or as Sarah Palin put it, “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?”
There’s nothing wrong with draining the puffery out of politics. But presidential campaigns should involve smart people with good ideas debating the direction government should take. Ultimately, those ideas have to come out of the mouths of the candidates, not off the top of a pile of 30-second attack ads. And I’d like to think cynicism won’t trump inspiration when the American people go to vote. Getting rid of hope is the last thing America needs right now.