Here’s how Reuters recently summed up the race for the White House: “The 2012 presidential election is more than six months away, but here is what we know so far: It is going to be close, it is going to be nasty, and the outcome could turn on a series of unpredictable events.” The argument that followed was balanced and intelligent, and nicely captured today’s conventional wisdom.
But the conventional wisdom may well be wrong. We don’t in fact “know” that the election will be close. Nor do we know that it will be nasty, or that it will turn on unpredictable events. To the contrary, if I had to put money down now, I’d bet that Mitt Romney will win an easy victory after a relatively predictable, issue-focused, and not-too-nasty campaign. Indeed, I’d bet Romney will win precisely if he runs such a campaign. But if he allows the race to degenerate into name-calling and gotcha gimmicks, he could lose. Democrats are better than Republicans at the small and nasty stuff.
If Romney can speak to Americans’ sense that it’s a big moment, with big challenges, and if he can make this a big election rather than a petty one, then he can win—perhaps big. Consider the polling data. For the first quarter of the year, Romney had a relatively tough primary battle. Obama had clear sailing, with little in the way of challenges from congressional Republicans or anyone else. The economic recovery was a bit better than it had been, and there were no obvious foreign policy disasters. These should have been very good months for Obama.
But he barely improved his status at all. On January 1, 2012, the RealClearPolitics average had Obama ahead of Romney 46.6 to 45 percent. Today, he’s up 47.5 to 44.6 percent—but the momentum is now in Romney’s direction. More important, Obama’s job approval hasn’t benefited much over the last few months. At the beginning of the year, he was at 46.8 percent approve, 47.8 disapprove; he’s now at 47.5 to 47.0, but beginning to slide back toward negative territory.
It seems more likely than not that this will be Obama’s high water mark for the rest of 2012. Put another way, it seems unlikely that more than 47 or 48 percent of the voters are going to want to reelect Barack Obama president on Election Day. This means it’s really Mitt Romney’s race to win.
Romney needs, over the next six months, to convince some number of swing voters he can and should be the next president. The easiest way to do this is by . . . behaving like a president. If you want to seem presidential, be presidential. It shouldn’t be hard. Romney already looks presidential, after all.
But looks aren’t enough. Romney has to behave presidentially—more like a leader than a campaigner. Let Obama lower himself by acting as campaigner in chief rather than commander in chief. Let Obama be shrill. Let his campaign be petty. Meanwhile, Romney can lay out his governing agenda to restore our solvency, put us on a path to prosperity, attend to our security, and safeguard our liberty. Romney can visit the troops in Afghanistan and our ally Israel. Instead of giving rebuttals and prebuttals to Obama’s speeches, Romney can give serious speeches about the Constitution and the Supreme Court, the case for limited government and the threat of bankruptcy and penury, about undoing Obamacare and what will replace it. President Obama has failed to pass a big tax reform, failed to master the federal budget, failed to reform our out-of-control entitlements. The next president, Mitt Romney, can explain that he will step forward to do all of these things.
And he can do so in a presidential way. He can comment thoughtfully and soberly on the news of the day, rather than simply using news events to snipe at Obama’s handling of various issues. That’s what surrogates are for. He can make clear he is ready to deal with the full spectrum of topics a president has to handle, rather than acting as a candidate who says he’s going to focus on just one issue (e.g., jobs) because “that’s what the voters care about.” Let his super-PACs focus on single issues. Romney should speak to his fellow citizens, whose concerns are broader. When Democrats engage in farcical claims of a Republican “war on women,” he can let surrogates respond by accusing Democrats of a “war on moms.” But he should make clear that he doesn’t intend to divide Americans by gender, race, or ethnicity.
Romney might even consider offloading his entire opposition research and instant response operation to the Republican National Committee. Let the RNC and the super-PACs put out the statements denigrating the Democratic candidate. Romney should treat his opponent with respect not contempt, sobriety not snark, and good humor not sarcasm. Romney should run for president rather than run against Obama. Others can take care of making the anti-Obama case, focused on the past. He needs to make the case for his future presidency.
Part of making that case is winning over some citizens who voted for Obama in 2008. People don’t like being told they are, or were, stupid. If some previous Obama supporters are now disappointed—and they are—Romney should empathize with them, not condescend to them. In 2004 John Kerry unfailingly gave the impression that he thought if you had voted for Bush, or approved of anything he’d done, or found him in certain ways likable or admirable, then you were an idiot. That’s no way to beat an incumbent. His former supporters need to be won over rather than bludgeoned into submission. Reagan provided a strong contrast on the issues to Jimmy Carter in 1980. But his tone wasn’t snide or contemptuous. Romney—and especially his campaign, which has had a taste for the snide and the contemptuous—might profitably study Reagan’s 1980 effort.
The Reuters piece quoted above points out, sensibly enough, that “a tepid economic recovery, voter pessimism about the future and a job approval rating largely stuck in the danger zone below 50 percent mean Obama could have a hard time matching his performance in 2008, when enthusiasm for his promise of change propelled him to victory over Republican senator John McCain with 53 percent of the vote.” Even in 2008, this reminds us, Barack Obama was able to get only 53 percent of the vote, winning by about 7 points. And we’re not in 2008 anymore. Candidate Obama is now President Obama. His approval/disapproval numbers today are just about where they were in April 2010. And in November 2010, Republicans defeated Democrats by almost exactly the same 7-point margin in total votes cast in races for the House of Representatives. Romney needs to hold the swing voters who defected from Obama in 2010. They know the case against Obama. They need to hear the case for Romney.
If Romney can make that case, he has a very good chance to win. So when Romney-Ryan defeats Obama-Biden (or will it be Obama-Clinton?) by 53 to 46 percent on Election Day 2012—remember that you read it here first.