With just over two months until Election Day, Barack Obama holds a narrow lead over Mitt Romney in the race for the presidency. The lead is shallow, however, and a careful look at the landscape reveals significant weaknesses for the president. The key question remains whether Romney can capitalize on them.
President Obama has enjoyed a lead over Romney in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls every day since October 2011. Yet the president is bedeviled by problems. For one thing, he remains locked at around 47 percent support; for the last quarter-century, this has been roughly the floor for Democratic presidential candidates, suggesting that all the president has done to date is consolidate the Democratic base.
Beyond that, Obama faces substantial roadblocks. His job approval rating has hovered between 47 and 48 percent for months. Given that incumbent presidents rarely win voters who disapprove of their performance in office, this is a red flag for the Democrats. Worse, support for the president among the critical bloc—independents—is anemic at best, clocking in at just 41 percent in the latest Gallup poll. Compounding the White House’s difficulties, Obama’s job approval on the top issues of the campaign is much lower than his overall approval rating; his marks on the economy and the deficit are quite weak, and a majority of the country still opposes Obamacare.
Yet the president enjoys a lead, even with all of these problems. What accounts for this? Part of the explanation is that summer polls usually survey registered voters, which tends to include more Democrats than actually show up to vote on Election Day. In the Rasmussen daily tracking poll of likely voters, Romney has been mostly in the lead since May.
Still, Obama’s narrow lead means that the GOP cannot rest on its oars this cycle. Moving forward, Romney still needs to accomplish two tasks. One will be easy, the other less so.
The easy job is to consolidate the base Republican vote. In presidential elections in the last quarter-century, that has been about 46 percent of the public (controlling for third-party challenges). Romney’s numbers have consistently fallen below 45 percent, meaning that he must still pull in the last stragglers of the Republican coalition. The Republican National Convention, combined with the GOP’s forthcoming advertising onslaught, should accomplish this task. It is a sure bet that Republican voters will come out strongly for the GOP ticket this year, given their antipathy toward the president.
More difficult is convincing the all-important independents that Romney will make a better president than Obama. There is little the Democrats can do about the president’s weak job approval with this bloc. After all, independents have had three and a half years to observe the president and formulate an opinion. Instead, the left has taken to demagoguing Mitt Romney in the hopes of scaring the middle of the country away from the Republican party. This strategy has its origins in LBJ’s vicious “frontlash” campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964; Johnson knew that he was bound to face a backlash over the Great Society and civil rights, so he sought effectively to disqualify Goldwater among middle-class moderates by casting the Arizona conservative as a threat to humanity.
This explains why Team Obama has dogged Romney so relentlessly on his tenure at Bain Capital. The hope is to define the GOP nominee as a heartless plutocrat who will make the rich richer and the poor poorer. This is, of course, an argument Democrats typically employ, going all the way back to 1896, but it forms the centerpiece of the Obama attack this cycle.
It is incumbent upon Romney to counter this—and not just by pointing out falsehoods and exaggerations in the Obama message. Instead, Romney will have to aggressively project a positive message over the next few months. That does not mean he has to distribute white papers to the mailboxes of all undecided voters. But he does have to combine a sunny optimism that America’s best days are ahead with enough specifics to leave the impression that he actually knows how to execute the turnaround the nation so desperately needs.
This task is at least as important as attacking the president’s record, arguably more so. After all, most voters have a well-formed opinion of the president. Further attacks on Obama need not convince people that he has done a bad job—they already think so—but must keep that opinion in the forefront of voters’ minds. After a certain point, attacks will not enhance the GOP argument; that’s where the positive message must begin.
The good news for conservatives is that Romney seems to understand this. His op-ed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal focuses on his tenure at Bain, but with a twist. Romney explains in detail what his tenure at Bain taught him about turning around troubled institutions. This is a perfect setup for a fall campaign that connects his biography to the challenges now facing our troubled country.
His vice presidential selection also shows that he understands the need to make a positive case. The “play it safe” strategy called for a vice presidential nominee who delivered votes in a big swing state, like Ohio or Florida. By going with Paul Ryan, Romney has signaled that he sees developing a message for change as his most important job. Ryan has become, without doubt, the intellectual leader of his party. Nobody in America has thought more about what the GOP should do when it returns to power, and by selecting Ryan, the former Massachusetts governor conveys that he will emphasize solutions in the fall campaign.
Many conservatives have been frustrated that Team Romney has not yet launched an aggressive counter-attack to the Obama message. After all, the president has spent tens of millions of dollars on negative advertising: Shouldn’t the GOP campaign have engaged?
The answer to that question lies in the old military maxim: Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes. Obama’s ad blitz over the summer seems largely to have been wasted. Voters were paying little attention, and the polls have actually tightened. Sure, Romney’s favorable ratings remain less than stellar; the most recent RealClearPolitics average of polls finds 45.5 percent of respondents viewing him favorably, 45 percent unfavorably. Nevertheless, swing voters likely make up most of the 10 percent who have not yet formed an opinion. The time to get them thinking positively about the GOP ticket begins at the convention. Team Romney may have been right to hold its fire through the summer.
While it is difficult to predict the outcome of a presidential election so far from the big day, the following nevertheless seems like a fair take:
Obama’s numbers remain 3 to 4 points short of a nationwide majority, and so far there is precious little evidence that the president can turn that around. This gives the Republicans an opening, but they will have to seize the initiative. Rather than waiting for victory to fall into his lap, Mitt Romney will have to pursue it aggressively. Fortunately, the choice of Ryan suggests that the GOP nominee understands this.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Spoiled Rotten.