As the Republican Convention drew to an end last week, and as we await the result of the polls led before, during and immediately after Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech, Europeans are progressively getting a little bit more into the US Presidential campaign, as they are introduced to Mitt Romney and his VP choice Paul Ryan. And strangely enough, whether I look at European TVs or when I touch the subject in a conversation with friends or politics colleagues from across the continent, the first (and I guess most important) question that arises is: “do you really think this guy is going to beat Obama?”.
To be honest, I find this question absolutely fascinating. First because it touches upon one real and legitimate doubt that many people are having about the Romney candidacy: “do you really think a politician with a relatively limited charisma like Romney is going to be able to get elected president of a country like the United States?”. To these doubters I will just respond that people in France and beyond were saying the same about Francois Hollande six months ago and that certainly didn’t impede him from winning the French presidential election last May; this year it seems, natural charisma and rhetoric grandeur may have less weight than substance or a manager’s image, and that is actually in Romney’s favor. The second reason for this also interesting: the fact is that a lot of people in Europe still believe that Barack Obama is the invincible “great communicator” of 2008 who will get re-elected whatever because he still enjoys the holy halo of hope and the promise of positive change for America. Whether one explains this belief by a bias of some of the European press in favor of the incumbent or by the fact that most Europeans don’t get interested at all in US politics except during the presidential election (which I guess is a much more powerful argument), the question is there, being asked on almost every TV anchor, in almost all conversations I had on the subject in the past few days: “can Romney really win?”.
The question is certainly legitimate: after all, Mitt Romney’s favorability ratings were clearly negative until the Republican Convention, and there is no reason to believe that these ratings are about to get positive in the next few days, despite his good speech on Thursday evening. And one could certainly argue that no challenger has ever been elected with a negative favorability rating. That is certainly true, but it is also equally true that Barack Obama’s satisfaction ratings are also negative (and have been so for some time now). And here again, if you want to play with numbers, no incumbent has ever managed to get re-elected with these negative ratings so far. What may give more force to the Obama negative ratings though is that the American electorate knows much more about Barack Obama than about Mitt Romney, so the challenger may have more chances to turn things up in the next few weeks.
The race is therefore uncertain, and it shows in the polls: during the summer, Barack Obama’s advantage in vote intentions has shrunk, and the race is now very close, with both national polls and individual polls in most of the swing states (the ones that will count in November, to name a few: Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, Ohio, Iowa, etc.) showing a less than 2% difference in vote intentions in every of those states. The latest RCP average I got before writing this article (that is before the polling wave which is to follow the GOP Convention) gave a 0.6 % advantage to Barack Obama nationally, which just shows how close the race is.
This is not to say that the campaign has been exciting so far: on the Democrats’ side, the disappointment with Barack Obama has been at the level of the hope he inspired four years ago; a majority of people are dissatisfied with the way the country is heading right now, and there is no talk of hope and change on this campaign (the new slogan of the Obama campaign, “forward”, is actually quite revealing of this: it is just as much about projecting Democrats on to the next 4 years of an Obama administration as it is about telling the voters: “do not look back at what has been done – or rather, not done – in the past four years, you ain’t seen nothing yet”…). On the other hand, Mitt Romney has found it difficult to stir the passions on the Republican side, partly because of his perceived lack of charisma, and partly because he was finding it hard to convince the right-wing of the party to follow him.
The VP ticket announcement and the Republican Convention in Tampa have slightly changed Romney’s dynamics: Paul Ryan is an excellent Vice Presidential pick for him, as he somehow balances the ticket by bringing in some inspiration to his candidacy, and notably for the right wing of the party. In fact, Ryan’s pick has probably cemented the GOP for this campaign without estranging independent voters as Sarah Palin had done in 2008. What is more, the three days of the Convention have stirred some excitement for the rank-and-file, but they also allowed the GOP and Mitt Romney to show faces somewhat different from the clichés we had been used to in the past few weeks (mainly from the Obama campaign): thus, Mitt Romney appeared as a much more humane figure while he continued to polish his image of a problem-fixing businessman; also, and this is very interesting for the long-term, the likes of Marco Rubio, Susana Martinez, Chris Christie or Nikki Halley showed by their interventions that the Republican Party is in a very deep process of renewal from bottom-up, both in physical and content terms. This new generation of Republicans is certainly good to watch for the future, and in the meantime they will be a very valuable asset to the campaign of Mitt Romney.
So, the convention has really launched the campaign for the challenger, and you may expect him to take the advantage in the next polls, at least until the Democratic Convention. But will it be enough to give Romney the dynamics he needs to win in November? Probably not. The fact is that candidates always get a boost in the polls immediately after their convention, but that rarely gives them a decisive advantage that will carry them through to victory. The real problem (and the real disadvantage) for the Republicans is not what is IN their ticket right now, but rather how they can counter the strategy that the Obama team has chosen to ensure re-election: that of the negativity spiral.
Here is how it works: Obama’s advisors perfectly know that Mitt Romney scores points when he reminds voters of the hopes of change in 2008 and compare expectations to hard results in 2012 (whether or to what extent the President is responsible for this is a matter of another debate, but I’m discussing campaigns here and message, not policy). They also know that trying to do a repeat of the “hope and change” campaign of 2008 would be suicidal: it is no secret for anyone (including in Chicago and the White House) that the enthusiasm of four years ago has been replaced by disillusionment, or at least skepticism. Under those terms, there is not much choice but to resort to the tactics that worked so well in 2004 for George W. Bush, i.e. to bury the campaign under a ton of mudslinging and negativity in order to distract the attention of the voter towards the opponent’s faults. That certainly is very far from hope and change, it may not be very nice (and will certainly have long-term consequences for the Democrats), but it certainly works in the short-term, as the experiences of 2004 (G.W. Bush against J. Kerry) or 1964 (L. Johnson against B. Goldwater) proved. The rationale is simple: if you are the incumbent and cannot be a good candidate, make the opponent look as bad (or worse if you can) as you, and in this way people will choose the “bad” candidate they know, rather than take the risk of choosing a candidate who may in the end be just as bad as the incumbent said. As the saying goes, between two evils, choose the one you know.
So far, Team Obama has managed to install this strategy in the presidential campaign (the negative wave against Clint Eastwood following his intervention at the Convention is a good example of this), and there is little doubt that if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan do not manage to overturn or divert this flow of negativity, they will not be able to make themselves heard sufficiently by the electorate to get the 1-2 points they need in the swing states if they are to win this election. This is obviously easier said than done, but this is what Mitt Romney and his campaign team need to do in the next two months if they ought to win.
The last two examples of beaten incumbents (Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992) show that these incumbents lost not (only) because their record appeared as unsatisfactory at the time, but also because their challengers managed to make a positive vision overheard in the ocean of mud that is an electoral campaign. This year, Mitt Romney needs to fly high above it to beat the incumbent and become the 45th President of the United States.