Obama's Two Playbooks

Pres. Obama does not have an election strategy; he has two. That is a matter of necessity, as the GOP decides whether to run Romney or NotRomney against him.

If the Republicans nominate NotRomney, he will pull the 2010 playbook off the shelf, as can be inferred from Ronald Brownstein:

[D]uring a public panel that I moderated here sponsored by Project New West, a Democratic research organization, leading party strategists expressed unruffled, almost blithe, optimism about Obama’s ability to hold the three Mountain states he carried in 2008. Partly that was because they expect more young people and minorities to vote in 2012 than did in 2010. But it was primarily because they think Obama will benefit from the contrast with the eventual Republican nominee. The Democratic hope is that those twin dynamics will allow Obama to reassemble the coalition of minorities and suburban whites that reelected Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet last year in Colorado.

Brownstein sees this strategy playing out as jobs vs. the environment, but cultural wedge issues are also in the mix, as Jay Cost explains after using Nevada 2010 as an example of the “frontlash” approach:

Any time you hear the Democrats squawking about how the Republicans are “anti-science,” that’s the frontlash in action. The goal is to tag the GOP as a bunch of flat earth throwbacks who are too extreme for the independent swing voters to support.

Will it work? Well, that depends. On the Republicans.

Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter) always try running some version of frontlash every year, throwing out charges about how the opponent is too extreme on this item or that. In an evenly divided electorate, such as the national one, it only works when the candidate under attack is weak. Is he given to foolish or outlandish statements? Does he needlessly antagonize certain classes of voters? Does he appear to lose his cool? These are the sorts of questions that, if answered in the affirmative, facilitate the frontlash. And in certain conditions – such as Nevada last year – it is sufficient for electoral victory.

This is sober advice for Republican primary voters as they begin to evaluate the potential GOP nominees. Yes, it is critically important that the choice of the party reflects and respects the views of most Republicans. But it is of equal importance that he or she does not commit unforced errors that facilitate Obama’s frontlash campaign.

Jay’s basic subtext is correct, but he may be overselling the viability of this strategy.

First, as Brownstein notes, the Mountain West has tended to react against the party holding the White House, which partially explains why Obama is faring no better in this region than other swing regions. We remember the GOP losing Senate races in Colorado in Nevada, but tend to forget Democrats lost seven House seats and two governorships in the region in 2010.

Second, the NotRomney has to be as exploitable by the Dems and the media as Ken Buck, Sharron Angle or Christine O’Donnell were in 2010. It is not clear Cain or Perry has quite entered that zone.

Third, the nomination of controversial candidates in 2010 split the GOP to a degree we are unlikely to see in 2012, given the chance to unseat Obama. In the races mentioned, the candidates got little to no assistance from the RNC or NRSC, leaving groups like American Crossroads to fill the gap. In 2012, the nominee will effectively control the RNC.

Fourth, wedge issues the Dems would like to exploit (abortion, gay marriage, global warming) likely slide down the priority list for the casual swing voter in a presidential year (as opposed to the more base-focused midterms). Granted, some presidential year-only voters are reliable Democrats, but if the economy remains stagnant, enthusiasm will remain an issue — which is why Obama is building a big ground game out west.

And what if the GOP nominates Romney? Team Obama will (mostly) shelve the 2010 playbook in favor of Bush’s 2004 re-elect playbook:

Already they are building a narrative in which Mr. Obama made politically brave decisions to do what was right for the economy, even if those decisions were unpopular. It’s a theme that echoes Mr. Bush’s argument in 2004 that he did what it took to keep the country safe, and that even if you disagreed with him, you knew where he stood.

As for defining the opponent, Mr. Obama’s supporters are already hard at work hammering home the idea that Mr. Romney is an inveterate flip-flopper, a man without core or convictions who says and does whatever is necessary to advance his political interests. It’s an approach that bears a passing similarity to the Bush re-election campaign’s efforts to paint Mr. Kerry as an inveterate flip-flopper, a man without core or convictions who. … You get the idea.

The class warfare attacks on Romney are also part of this strategy. Team Obama will try to make Romney’s Bain Capital money shot as well-known as Kerry’s sailboarding pic. (The “Romney is Mormon weird” attacks fit here, too.) So far, Romney has played the Democratic demagogue on taxes and extitlements, but in a general election, he’s not going to out-demagogue Obama.

Nevertheless, the Bush 2004 playbook may also be oversold. The consultants hold forth on whether an election is a referendum or a choice. But in 2004, the economy was improving, it was the first post-9/11 general election, and Iraq was not seen as going as badly as it was seen just a year later. Otherwise, Karl Rove might have looked a lot less like a political genius.