The conventional wisdom in the presidential race is that President Obama is a clear favorite. We hear this from the pundits in the press, we see it in the InTrade odds, and various predictive models built around the polling averages tell us this.
But I disagree.
For starters, I believe it is based upon a historically naïve view of summer political polling. Yes, Obama enjoys a modest lead in the nationwide vote, as well in the swing states, but consider the bounciness of the polling in 1968, 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 2000. It is not hard to see that political polling before and after the conventions looks different – in ways that endure beyond the traditional “convention bounces.”
There is another problem with the received wisdom, which is that it is built on the assumption that all voters are equally persuadable. They are not, which is why President Obama’s three-point margin over Mitt Romney needs to be understood in the context of where he actually is in those polls.
For the last two months, President Obama has bounced around between 46 and 48 percent of the vote in the national polls, as well as most averages of the state polls. Impressive? Hardly. Forty-six to 48 percent is really just the core Democratic coalition, which every Democrat has held for the past quarter century.
The old Democratic party broke down in 1968, the start of a long presidential exile. The party managed only one victory out of the next six; worse, it saw the collapse of its traditional New Deal coalition built on the Solid South, the white working class in and around the big Northern cities, and farmers/ranchers in the West. Slowly but surely, the party rebuilt itself into the coalition we know today – dominated by racial and ethnic minorities, upscale white liberals (especially activist groups like the environmentalists and feminists), government workers, and young voters. It was in the 1988 election that we saw the party coming back from the brink, and every cycle since then the Democrats have enjoyed a floor of about 46 percent of the vote, built around roughly 90 percent of Democratic support, 40 percent of independent support, and 10 percent of Republican support.
If you look carefully at the national horserace polls, you will notice that these are the only people supporting Obama over Romney, more or less. And if you look carefully at the presidential job approval polls, you will notice that these are also the only people approving of his job performance, more or less.
In other words, Obama’s polling right now suggests that he has only locked down the core Democratic vote; what's more, those not currently in his voting coalition tend to disapprove of his job as president. Indeed, the Gallup job approval poll finds him with just 31 percent support from “pure” independents, i.e. those with no party affiliation whatsoever.
It is extraordinarily difficult for incumbent presidents to win the votes of people who disapprove of the job they are doing. Hence, this race is Romney’s to win.
But it is not his to lose. And that's an important distinction.
It is difficult to overcome the hurdle that Obama faces – to win voters who think you’ve done a bad job as president – but not impossible. Richard Nixon in 1972 won a significant chunk of his disapprovers because the McGovern-Shriver ticket was not a serious option. Lyndon Johnson managed the same in 1964, as he made the Goldwater-Miller ticket out to be a threat to humanity itself.
The 1964 election is particularly important to understanding the 2012 campaign. I have argued in the past that, bereft of popular legislative achievements, a sound economy, or a manageable deficit, President Obama is left running a version of LBJ’s 1964 campaign. Johnson was worried that passage of the Civil Rights Act would spark a backlash that would keep him from his goal of the largest victory in history. Hence, the “frontlash” strategy, designed to make typically Republican voters (mostly moderates in the Northeast) scared to death of Goldwater. “The stakes are too high,” LBJ warned the country in ad after ad.
Obama is basically running this campaign. If LBJ made Goldwater a threat to western civilization, Obama is trying to make Romney into a corporate raider who will bring about a new feudalism.
This points to Romney’s challenge, and it is a significant one. Obviously, he needs to remind swing voters of all the things about the Obama tenure that they do not like, but he also must counter Obama's negative campaign. He cannot allow himself to be tagged as a capitalist pig whose only goal is personal enrichment. Instead, he must aggressively and constantly push the idea that he is a decent, public-spirited man whose background is precisely what this country needs.
This is why a bold vice presidential selection is a good start. A vibrant, articulate conservative who can make the positive case for a change would be an important signal that Team Romney understands it is not enough to get the country to say “no” to Obama, but also say “yes” to Romney. Beyond that, while the Tampa convention should toss out plenty of red meat to conservatives, it must dedicate much more effort to promoting Romney as the best leader to fix our problems. Similarly, during the ad wars and the fall debates, Romney must not focus singularly on the case against Obama – the president has made that himself over three years of bad governance – but dedicate substantial effort to making the case for himself.
By Election Day, there will be two stories about Mitt Romney. The one, which we have already heard from Team Obama, portrays Romney as a heartless capitalist. The other is a case still to be made, from Team Romney, that he is a pragmatic problem solver who understands the private economy and can fix it.
If a majority of voters think that Romney’s story is closer to the truth than Obama’s, then Mitt Romney will be elected the 45th President of the United States.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.