I thought it might be a good time for another update on how I see the presidential campaign because I believe there have indeed been significant developments, especially in terms of the post-convention bounce, the Romney campaign's strategy, and the attacks and riots in the Middle East.
(As a reminder to anybody new to this series, I'm a Democrat and an Obama voter so I certainly have a dog in this fight. But I've really do try to give some reasonably neutral analysis in these posts. However, my Republican amigos aren't going to like much of what's in this one, mostly because it's been a very bad several weeks for their candidate.)
So let's start with the post-convention bounce, which clearly went to Obama. Nate Silver published a really good, detailed post this morning on the convention bounce and the current polling trends at his fivethirtyeight.com blog: Sept. 16: Watching the Clock and Awaiting the Unknown. If you want a good window into the polling data that we're seeing right now, start there.
It's been extremely difficult for either candidate to move the needle in this campaign. The polls have reflected what I think we have all sensed during this campaign. As an electorate this country has become much like our Congress: very split, very partisan, and very stubborn. So there has been little fluctuation in the polls throughout the campaign. But it's become clear that the Romney campaign got little to no bounce from the Republican National Convention (RNC) while the Obama campaign did pick up a significant bounce from the Democratic National Convention (DNC), a bounce that could be especially meaningful in terms of this otherwise very static race.
This was a very bad development for the Romney campaign, and it was a direct reflection of the poor performance of the Republican Party at their convention, and the surprisingly disciplined and effective convention run by the Democratic Party this year. Presidential campaigns slug away at each other hourly in an ever-quickening campaign cycle and that meta-campaign can push the numbers one way or the other. But there are usually a few opportunities for a campaign to make a significant dent in its opponents numbers. Usually those are the vice-presidential pick, the conventions, and the debates. The campaign's reaction to unexpected news events can also have a significant impact, as we may see with the current Middle Eastern unrest, but they are by definition unpredictable.
So, why did the Romney camp fail to move the needle? In general I would say their biggest problem both in the convention and in their ongoing messaging has been a failure to move their tone from the primary to the general election, a failure best symbolized by Clint Eastwood's now infamous empty-chair monologue. But aside from Clint and the chair, things didn't go well for Romney or the Republicans that week. The GOP was beset before the convention by Todd Akin's bizarre claims about rape and pregnancy in the Missouri Senate campaign, a strong reminder to the general electorate of how far right the current GOP has gone on social issues. The first day of the convention was cancelled due to the close approach of Tropical Storm Isaac, which then became a hurricane that flooded New Orleans and Mississippi during the subsequent days of the RNC, reminding everybody of the George W. Bush administration's ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina. For a party that was trying as hard as possible to keep the GW Bush administration out of the discussion, the timing couldn't have been worse.
Then VP nominee Paul Ryan stood up on stage on the next-to-last night of the convention and in less than an hour left his reputation as an honest messenger with detailed policy solution in tatters by delivering a speech devoid of genuine policy, but loaded with easily demonstrable falsehoods. Of all the developments in the campaign that may have been the most damaging to the Romney campaign. The first immediate fallout came on a trivial item that closed the debate on Paul Ryan's honesty when Runner's World magazine correctly refuted Ryan's claim to have once run a sub-three-hour marathon. Our current mainstream journalism is filled with journalists who bend over backwards to try to present other perspectives, no matter how factually dubious. But when even Runner's World is fact-checking your VP nominee's statements, it's a truly bad development for his ability to act as an effective and trustworthy surrogate on the road.
By the time Eastwood got into his strange argument with an empty chair, the real self-inflicted damage to the Romney campaign had already been done. The mostly forgettable* and policy free Romney speech that followed has long since been forgotten. What most voters seem to remember of the 2012 RNC is that Paul Ryan stood at the podium and made stuff up, and then Clint Eastwood yelled at a chair.
(*FWIW, the thing I most remember from Romney's speech was the rose-a-day story he told about his parents. That was a very effective bit in an otherwise ineffective speech.)
In that way the Eastwood chair debacle was akin to Howard Dean's famous "scream" following the 2004 Iowa caucuses. People now remember that as the beginning of the end of the Dean campaign. But in fact it came during Dean's attempt to rally his supporters after an especially disheartening 3rd-place finish in Iowa. Desperate campaigns start to press and make unforced errors as they try to change the narrative, something we're starting to see increasingly often from the Romney campaign. Clint Eastwood's furniture lecture came as the climax of a bad convention. I can't possibly imagine an acceptance speech that could've righted the ship after the chair performance, and if there was such a speech, Mitt Romney seems awfully low on the list of orators likely to deliver it.
As for Eastwood's monologue itself? A Tea-Partying friend of mine tweeted afterwards that "President Obama has been completely absent as a leader. The empty chair was appropriate analogy." We do both agree on one thing: the empty-chair monologue was an entirely appropriate analogy. Where we disagree why it was appropriate. As I see it, a rich, old, white man arguing uncomfortably with an imaginary and fictional version of Obama wasn't just appropriate, it was a perfect analogy for both the Republican National Convention, the 2012 Romney campaign, and the last four years of GOP messaging as a whole.
And this gets to the truly tone-deaf nature of the Romney general-election campaign. For the last six years Mitt Romney has essentially been running a primary campaign entirely within the Fox News and Rush Limbaugh reality bubble, a place in which any divergent opinion is dismissed as coming from a "Republican in Name Only", the liberal media, or -- worst of all -- actual Democrats, a strange and bizarre assortment of straw men who stalk the halls of power only concerned with lining their own pockets while looting the hard-earned salary of a working man and establishing Sharia Law across the land.
It's easy to understand how Romney slipped into that bubble. The biggest obstacle in his quest to become president was securing the Republican nomination, an especially high hurdle for him despite his other advantages since he had a seemingly moderate record as the governor of liberal-leaning Massachusetts. Doubts about his conservative credentials among the Republican base greatly undermined his unsuccessful 2008 campaign. So in this cycle he swung as far to the right as he could, running against the health-care reform that marked his one substantial achievement as governor, trying to get to the right of Rick Santorum on social issues, and eventually scrapping whatever plausibility his original tax and budget plans may have had by shifting to a mathematically unworkable claim that he would reduce the top rate to 28% by eliminating deductions while also lowering taxes on the middle class.
Within the Republican primary bubble of 2012, that strategy worked because much of that electorate also spent the last four years in the same Fox News and Rush Limbaugh reality bubble, a magical place in which birthers' increasingly strange claims are treated as serious news, Donald Trump is a serious man, and Paul Ryan has never, ever been asked to show his math.
But now in the general election, despite a Romney campaign aide's earlier claim that after the primary they would shake the Etch-A-Sketch to reset their narrative for the general campaign, a strange thing has happened. The always flexible Mitt Romney failed to shift to a general campaign tone, but has instead kept hammering away with essentially the same rhetoric that worked for him in the primary. Why this has happened is a matter of speculation. It could be a deliberate decision to run the same base-turnout campaign that worked very well for the GOP in the 2010 Congressional elections. Or it could be something more damaging to Romney's general election chances. Perhaps after spending the last four years immersed in the right-wing media bubble they've made the most basic mistake of all, believing their own propaganda.
In other words, if you're invested in the 2012 GOP campaign and you think Clint Eastwood arguing with a chair was a good idea, it may be time to turn off the Fox News and crack open a newspaper, preferably one not owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Whatever the cause, what emerged during the week of the RNC failed to swing voters to the Romney cause. Looking across all the polls, if there was any bounce at all it was almost certainly less than one percent, a very low mark even in this year of static polling.
And then, in an upset of monumental proportions, the Democrats held their most disciplined, best organized, and effective conventions in at least a couple of decades. (I was so very, very proud of my Dems, since we're so often inclined to shoot ourselves in the foot over intraparty constituency squabbles.)
Successful conventions are much less interesting than failed conventions, but to sum up: on the first night Michelle Obama gave a dynamite First-Lady speech; on the second night Bill Clinton gave one of the best and most effective speeches in convention history, and on the third night Obama delivered a solid speech of his own. Sure, other stuff happened -- and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's highly spirited speech is worthy of a post of its own -- but those are the things that I think came across to voters, and of all of them I believe that Clinton's speech was the most effective and important event because of the economic record of his administration and the level of policy detail that stood in stark contrast to the previous week's RNC convention. What also stood out was the consistent message: "General Motors is alive, and Osama bin Laden is dead."
In terms of the actual bump that followed the conventions, it looked to me as if two things happened: a few percent of Romney likely voters moved to "undecided" and the percentage of Democratic voters who said they were likely to vote in November increased. That would be consistent if indeed the RNC's tone and message did scare off some moderate voters and if the DNC really did effectively bring the many factions of the Democratic Party together for the stretch run. As for how long it all holds up ... eh, some convention bounces have a longer life than others. Their durability is in great part a function of whether a campaign can successfully build on their convention and this is where I think we're seeing the real impact of the conventions in the Romney campaign's stretch tactics.
One effect of the Obama surge in the polls has been to take some potential swing states off the map for the Romney campaign. In late August the various SuperPACs supporting Romney pulled their television advertising from Michigan and Pennsylvania. Campaigns are reluctant to pull advertising from a state because it essentially concedes a state to the opponent, allowing the opponent to redirect resources into more competitive states, and often leading to damage down the ticket as their opponent develops "coattails" that often sweep lower-level candidates from the same party into office. Presidential campaigns that are doing well play on their opponent's turf, the swing states that lean the other direction. Presidential campaigns that are doing poorly concede states to concentrate on a lessening number of states that can still get them to the magic number of 271 electors. A shrinking map offers fewer opportunities for a losing campaign to pull out a victory.
And in this sense, the "General Motors is alive" part of the Democrats message has apparently been effective in shifting the industrial Midwestern towards the Obama column. Fivethirtyeight.com now shows Indiana as the only likely Romney state on Nov. 6. Without dragging you into the math, gentle reader, the electoral map is extremely challenging for Romney if he loses both Ohio and Wisconsin, the other two most likely Midwestern states to swing into his column. The automobile industry rescue mattered to the economy as a whole, but it especially mattered in the Midwest.
Keep an eye out for other announcements that the campaigns are moving advertising into or out of states. It's one of the best non-polling indicators of how the campaign is going. (And oh, how I don't envy undecided voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, Florida, Virginia, and a few other swing states. You are about to be subjected to a SuperPAC media blitz of negativity the likes of which we have never seen before.)
BTW, another good indicator of campaign health is increased or decreased fundraising, so it's worth mentioning that this metric also shifted towards Obama in August as he outraised Romney in August for the first time in months. If September follows suit it will be a very bad sign for Romney.
The other big development in the campaign in the last few weeks was the outbreak of Islamist attacks and riots in the Middle East and elsewhere, spurred at least in part by an anti-Islamic film excerpt posted on YouTube. The most serious event was in Libya where our ambassador and three other embassy staff members were killed when the Benghazi consulate was attacked. Perhaps former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan put it best when she said that Romney "didn't do himself any favors" in the aftermath of the event with his attacks on President Obama following the Benghazi attack.
This was again another simple, unforced error. If this was a "Campaign 101" test question, it would read like this:
QUESTION: With nine weeks left in the campaign our consulate in a foreign country is attacked by a mob and the ambassador and several staff members are killed. The exact sequence of events is still not yet known, and it seems that similar events may be happening in other volatile countries. Your candidate must issue a statement. What should he say?
HINT: There is only one correct answer.
ANSWER: "Like all Americans I am shocked and appalled by the developments in Country X. Although my opponent and I have significant differences on foreign policy, those who committed this act must know that all Americans stand united in opposition to their actions. While we await further news on exact events, my wife, my staff, and I are praying for the safety of all our brave men and women in the diplomatic corps who put themselves in harm's way every day to serve our country." [Note: high-scoring answers will deliver these words sternly and soberly, with just a hint of sadness at our loss.]
So, why did Romney flub it? I think there were two reasons that relate back to the previous convention analysis. First, this was an example of tone-deafness. The permanent campaign in the Fox News & Limbaugh bubble takes every event as an opportunity to criticize Obama, so it may simply not have occurred to Romney that his remarks were inappropriate. I cited the second reason earlier in this post: "Desperate campaigns start to press and make unforced errors as they try to change the narrative."
The clock is running out on Mitt Romney's opportunity to become president. And so the riot in Cairo and attack in Benghazi may have seemed a gift, especially in the wake of polling that showed that more Americans trust Obama to deal with terrorism than trust Romney. Unexpected news items and crises are the other opportunity that campaigns have to shift the polls. But unfortunately for the Romney campaign, their candidate's ham-handed answer reinforced the poor foreign-policy relation he created with his poorly received pre-Olympics international tour.
So, is this the end of the line for the Romney campaign? Is nothing left but cleaning up lawn signs and a long siege of finger-pointing?
The clock is most assuredly running out. But despite the recent outbreak of Romney intracampaign sniping (Politico: Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled) -- another bad sign for a campaign's future -- there's still time for the campaign to shift back towards Romney. But whereas six weeks ago he had several good chances to finally overtake Obama in the polls, the VP selection and the conventions have come and gone and he's lost ground. Plus, he badly mishandled the first major post-primary foreign crisis of this election. Romney hasn't held a consistent lead over Obama in the polls since last year, and his opportunities now look limited to the debates and any other crises that may arrive.
Given performance to date of Romney in the Republican primaries and both Romney and Ryan at the convention, there doesn't seem to be much reason to think that Romney and Ryan will change the course of the election in the debates. And given their campaign's poor performance with their first mid-campaign international crisis, there's reason to think that future crises may tend to benefit Obama's election chances.
This isn't the official end of the road quite yet. But I think we can see it from here.