Friday, January 27, 2012

Plum Line: General Election Reset

With new GDP numbers out and Mitt Romney in command of the nomination, my Plum Line post today looks ahead to the general election. Key point: Mitt Romney is shaping up to very much be a generic Republican candidate, and the out-party candidate just doesn't matter all that much against an incumbent president.

That said, I think there are two things I'd add. One is that I'd recommend forgetting all about Romney's weaknesses within the GOP. Once he clinches, I don't see anything that would keep the party from rallying around him. His weak polling numbers now just don't matter much. On the other hand, it's worth noting that "generic Republican" these days includes some fairly unpopular positions on public policy. Romney has endorsed the House (Ryan) budget from last year and taken other ideologically driven positions (and that's before we get to the party platform, which is sure to offer the Democrats more ammunition). We do know that perceived ideological extremism is a general election negative, and Obama should be able to push public perceptions of Romney's positioning, even if it won't be as effective as it would have been against Rick Perry, or for that matter Michele Bachmann.


  1. Do platforms - meaning the formal documents - matter much any more? They are adopted in such obscurity that they generate no soundbites. Of course Dems will pound on the GOP as extreme. But how much mileage will they try to get out of the GOP platform as such, as compared to Romney's primary-season statements, the Ryan budget plan, et al.?

  2. the out-party candidate just doesn't matter all that much against an incumbent president.

    But wouldn't the identity of the candidate matter quite a bit in your scenario #3 (the economy-improving-but-slowly-and-unimpressively scenario)? You hint at that in your post when you say that "the ads, the speeches, the candidate skills and weaknesses, the debates, specific issues" will become very important in that scenario.

    Even if that's the only scenario in which the specific candidate matters much, it's still a pretty likely scenario! (I'd argue, the likeliest of the three you mention.)

  3. I tend to agree with Andrew that scenario #3 is the most likely. Frankly, given the deep hole we are starting from, I don't think that is a particularly good place for Obama to be -- too many people have been hurting too much for too long, and (as people in pain do) they take a dim view of excuses. They tend to view talk of difficulties, including Republican opposition, as whining and trying to evade the issue that you (the incumbent) haven't gotten the problem fixed.

    I am not one to bash Obama from the left too much, but I will say that he, or more to the point his administration, hasn't seemed to understand that people in general want to know "what have you done for ME." That isn't to say that he can personally ask each American what they need and see to it, or that he should become a serial panderer. However, it is troubling that, for instance, in the health care debate it didn't seem like the adminstration understood that a lot of people wanted to know "what's in it for ME?" Talk of bending cost curves, etc., just doesn't resonate with people who 1) already have insurance, and 2) keep seeing the cost rise steadily. Wonkish arguments about costs going up not as steeply and the general social benefit of a national insurance plan ... well, as my father would have said, it doesn't put money in my pocket that I can touch and use to buy groceries, and it doesn't give me any health insurance benefits I don't already have. I don't agree with my father's way of thinking, but there are a lot more people out there that agree with him than would probably agree with me.

    As for painting Romney/Republican as extreme ... sigh, I just don't think people are likely to listen. They are hurting, Obama hasn't helped them, and he doesn't seem to get that they want to be helped in ways that they can feel and appreciate and (very importantly) understand. They want to hear (from the right) that we'll get you a job and see to it that nobody rips you off. They want to hear (from the left) that we'll guarantee your children can go to college and that you will never go bankrupt because of health issues. They want to hear (from the middle) that we'll get spending under control and keep the budget balanced. Nobody that they can respect is speaking to them in clear terms that they can understand, and that has them boiling. Heck, it has ME boiling, and I've worked for years in Washington and have a better understanding than most of the problems under which politicians and policy professionals labor. But it seems that the problems get worse and worse, and the polticians get more and more reluctant to speak clearly about solutions that would actually help.

    I know, I know -- Romney is not any better at that sort of thing than Obama, really. But he hasn't been President while people are hurting and not being helped. Obama has a lot of advantages, and the economy may do better than people expect. But frankly, the economic news that came out today, coupled with rising gas prices, would make me in panic mode if I were working for the Obama campaign.

    Andrew Gelman recently predicted that Romney will soon grab a large lead on Obama based on all these factors. He further predicted that this lead will dissipate as people realize that Romney/Republican is espousing some awfully unpopular positions (a kind of 1988 in reverse), and that it will come down to a very narrow contest. I would be interested to hear whether Mr. Bernstein thinks this is a likely scenario. If it is, I think Obama is in a whole world of hurt. The dominant narrative, driven by high Romney ratings and poor economic news, will be doom for the democrats, and I doubt if Obama will be able to recover in time.

    1. Nobody that they can respect is speaking to them in clear terms that they can understand, and that has them boiling.

      I really don't think "speaking in clear terms" is a problem for Obama. Did you hear or read the SOTU? It was written at an eighth-grade level. Go any lower and it would sound like a Dr. Seuss book.

      As for your other comments, why do you think Gelman's scenario represents a "world of hurt" for Obama? There's still nine whole months until the election for the extremely well-financed and well-disciplined re-election team to hammer home the fact that Romney "is espousing some awfully unpopular positions".

      Sure, if the economy is double-dipping, that won't matter one whit. But, as you concede, the most likely scenario is slow-but-steady growth. And after 9 months of slow-but-steady growth, the "what have you done for ME" approach is not likely to work as well.

  4. Every day, Romney wakes up, he's white. And he has an R after his name.

    That's good enough for 60 million popular votes in the depths of a recession associated with your own party -- and saddled with a disatrous VP pick to boot. Cf. McCain 2008.

    There is no reason not to expect a close election even in the event of a strong recovery.

  5. Andrew,

    I did read the SOTU, and I actually thought Obama did a pretty good job. However, I just don't know if it will connect to a lot of fence-sitters in this economic environment. What seems to clear to you and me, that is to people who are interested in and follow politics, often isn't very clear or very compelling to people who don't. For one thing, they don't listen to SOTU's anyway. But for another most of the public operates in a very different frame of reference than those of us who comment on this board. Once again, I go back to my father, far from a stupid man but one not particularly interested in politics, who would have looked at the health care reform (to take an easy example) and say: "Are you going to give me any money? Social Security gives me money, this doesn't. Are you going to give me benefits I don't have? Medicare gives me benefits my father did not have and that I would not have without it. This doesn't. Why am I supposed to like this again?" As I say, much as I loved him I often found his views myopic. But I'm also forced to say that he represented a very large part of the electorate.

    As for the economy, once again, I just don't know if it's going to be enough. "Slow and steady" would help a lot, but the latest growth numbers seem to bespeak "frustrating and uncertain." We are in an enormous hole, with a lot of people "off the books" when it comes to the employment situation and a lot of others stewing in private (and often unacknowledged)combinations of depression, desperation, and dread. Slow and steady might give them enough hope to swing this thing, given a tight race. Creeping and uncertain could well seem to them to be a state of pure stagnation, and that might spell deep trouble for the Obama campaign.

    For what it's worth, I hope you are right. But this is largely the same electorate that elected George W. Bush twice (yes, I know about FL but the vote was dismayingly close), with much of it being the electorate that elected Ronald Reagan twice and Richard Nixon twice (someone who voted in 1968 might only be 62 this year). Things are changing slowly, one hopes. But the ghosts of Vietnam and Watergate, which together dealt a mortal blow to once-robust public trust in government, are still with us (and when it comes to the South the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act played a role as well). Once again, remember that some people who were in Vietnam aren't even drawing social security yet. Like it or not anyone espousing progressive policies, which after all do tend to mean larger and more active government, automatically faces stiff headwinds if not outright hysteria, even if all other factors of race and culture were equal. One day we will see the end of that. Arguably, the end has already begun. But it isn't over yet, and progressives simply face obstacles where conservatives do not. In that context, any extra problems coming from the economy are problems we don't need.

    1. I also see lots of obstacles for Obama. As Davis pointed out, Romney wakes up everyday with 60M votes. Obama has to do more building. This time he won't have the benefit of being the new guy with interesting sounding ideas. Romney isn't the new guy with interesting ideas either, but people may want to put the economy into Republican hands after 4 years of Democrats with less-than-stellar success.

      I agree that continuing stagnation in the economy will hurt Obama, but I'm not sure that moderate improvement helps him much. That may seem more like natural healing than anything he did.

      One thing that could help Obama is bad behavior by Congressional Republicans. If they act like obstructive, spoiled children, the electorate will be reluctant to put more power in their hands. And the easiest way to bust them down is make them contend with Obama for 4 years. But if they play nice with Obama, there's also less reason to move Obama out. I wonder how the Repubs in Congress are going to thread that one.

    2. Well, Moderate, I really don't know that the voting public is sophisticated enough to play strategy games with regard to Congress and the Presidency. I'm not at all sure that the behavior of Congressional Republicans will matter at all, much as it should. Romney isn't a Congressional GOP person, and most of the public has a vague notion that the President is in charge of Congress, anyway.

      On the other hand, I don't think the public makes sophisticated economic distinctions, either, whether true or false. I think if the economy improves noticeably Obama will get the credit -- but it must be noticeable, and at this point it may not be.


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