Rick Santorum’s departure from the race not only virtually assures Mitt Romney of the GOP presidential nomination, but also provides a milestone from which to assess the state of Pres. Obama’s campaign. Lately, Obama has been running as the “grim warrior” and the class warrior, in apparent recogintion of the difficulty of running on his record or the economy. Although he certainly wishes this was not the case, it does not mean that Obama is campaigning irrationally.
Regular readers of mine know I am a fan of the fundamentals and stress the dominance of the economy in most election years. Political scientist Lynn Varveck, who has studied the exceptions to the general rule, explains the usefulness of models of modern presidential elections:
If you were running for president, would you want to know what political science forecasting models predict about your party’s fortunes? As Stanley Greenberg said, presidential candidates and their consultants ignore this work at their peril. If you are predicted to win, talk about the economy and own it. If you are predicted to lose — find something else onto which the election can be reset. An issue on which you are closer to most voters and your opponent is constrained by an unpopular position. The latter is very hard and because of that, it is rare, which is why sometimes when we evaluate forecasts based on the economy it looks like campaigns don’t matter much — but this is just because most candidates who are predicted to win understand they have to talk about the economic growth, and when they do that, they win! Only Gerald Ford in 1976 lost after implementing this strategy.
Thus, if Obama thinks the economy will not significantly improve in the next six months, it makes sense for him to look for other issues. To quote Mad Men‘s Don Draper, “If you don’t like what’s being said about you, change the conversation.” But is Obama changing the subject to his advantage?
At first glance, the answer would seem to be “yes.” Low taxes for the wealthy and “cuts” to Medicare never poll pretty well. Thus, it is tempting to conclude that Mitt Romney’s defense of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget steps into Obama’s trap.
However, the latest Third Way poll of independents and “swing independents” in this year’s battleground states suggests otherwise. [Note: Some of the states included here seem safely Democratic this year, but the list is quite similar to those reportedly targeted by both Obama and Romney, so I do not fault the poll on this score.] Who the poll calls “swing independents” is important because the broad category of independents include so-called leaners who are actually very reliable voters for their favored party. Thus, it is good news for Obama that at the moment, while he is virtually tied with Romney among these swing state independents in general, Obama leads Romney 35%-29% (44%-38% with leaners in this subgroup) among true independents. Nevertheless, the Third Way analysis of the poll notes Obama won 57% of true independents in 2008. Obama could do this well again, but it should concern his campaign that after four years of his administration, true independents in key states give him only 44% at best, even before a unified GOP goes on the offensive. Third Way also notes these swing independents generally value economic opportunity over economic fairness. RCP’s Alexis Simendinger summarizes:
“Swing Independents are searching for leaders who will articulate a positive vision for the future — one where the American economy is back on top and the next generation can achieve the American Dream. While the fairness framework does not feed this need, an economic opportunity message answers these deep concerns about the future.”
While progressives have urged Obama to dump his 2011 rhetorical emphasis on curbing debt and deficits in favor of a more combative re-election bid, those issues remain important to the undecided fence-sitters he will need to win a second term. These voters care about the size of government and debts and blame Congress more than Wall Street and special interests for gridlock and policy myopia.
If the Third Way’s survey is a guide, [Senate Minority Whip Jon] Kyl’s emphasis may be well placed. Fully 93 percent of swing independents said they are “somewhat” or “very worried” about the national debt.
In short, Obama is trying to change the subject, but to one which seems not particularly likely to move the most persuadable voters back into his camp.