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How to Follow Our Weird Politics

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Popkin loves such ephemera, but he doesn’t build his case solely around them. Hence, the second valuable aspect of The Candidate is his insistence that what matters above all else is the team, and especially the immediate supervisor of that team, the chief of staff. He goes so far as to assert:

Weak chiefs of staff are the biggest reason campaigns flounder. A chief of staff is weak not because of her personality or character but because the candidate sets her up to be weak…the candidate never gives the chief enough authority to mediate and coordinate, let alone level with the candidate.

This seems convincing to me. In my own experience, the winning campaign was usually the one less riven by internal disputes and jealousies, and that campaign almost always had a strong person overseeing it. A touch of messianism among the staff helps—a sense that they are saving the country (or state or city) from some condition of turpitude to which the opponent’s victory would surely assign it. That tends to keep the egos of the staff in check. In 2008, the Obama people felt that sense of cause more strongly than the Clinton people or John McCain’s team, or even the acolytes of Sarah Palin.

What do Popkin’s criteria tell us about this election? On the question of teams, both candidates are well set up. Obama will have a familiar group around him, essentially the same one that guided him to victory in 2008. By and large this team made excellent decisions in 2008 in running the campaign, but in governing, often not very good ones at all. We did not see a convincing and strongly publicized national program—or programs—to create jobs, for example. One of the big questions about David Axelrod, David Plouffe, and the others is whether returning to the campaign will resharpen their judgment. Axelrod in particular is probably more adept at campaigning than he was at governing.

Romney’s campaign manager is Matt Rhoades, who worked in public relations during Romney’s campaign in 2008. Just thirty-seven, Rhoades’s name rarely makes the papers, which from Popkin’s perspective is a good sign for the candidate. He hasn’t given a single on-the-record interview during this entire campaign, never appears on television, and has by most accounts no desire to convert his job into a recurring spot on Fox News. Most other top aides have been around Romney since at least 2008.

It is unsurprising, then, that Romney’s campaign has been as disciplined as it has. One hears, for example, few leaks from unnamed sources inside the campaign complaining about this or that stratagem. The Etch A Sketch error, committed on cable television by senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, is the one big muck-up by the campaign that I can recall, and even then it was a matter of just one sloppily chosen metaphor. The Romney campaign’s problem is not the team but the candidate, who puts his foot into his mouth almost every week. These mistakes have not done him much damage while he’s been running against a field of people who plainly are not plausible potential presidents. Things will be different when he’s facing an incumbent president who is a skilled campaigner.

So where might this election fall, on what I might call the Sides-Silver scale? Will the outcome be largely determined by the condition of the economy in October, or will events large and small, and how the campaigns react to them, decide matters? The movement we’ve seen so far in the race provides a bit of ammunition to both sides of the argument. Three or four months ago, Obama and Romney were tied in most polls. Today, Obama leads by anywhere from 4 to even 10 percent. What’s changed? The fundamentals, certainly: the economy is better. But events, too: Obama has opened up a particularly large lead over Romney among women, which surely has to do with the Republican assault on contraceptive services for women following the administration’s compromise about the obligations of religious institutions to provide birth-control coverage.

The economy should loom particularly large in this election. After all, we’ve been living through the most severe economic crisis in eighty years. Although we are through the worst of it, economists are divided on how robust this recovery will prove to be by the fall. While it is true that the Federal Reserve and others have been surprised by the impressive jobs numbers of the last few months, very few economists so far are willing to say that the jobless rate will continue to fall between now and November.

Observers who are both pessimistic and optimistic tend to agree, though, that an unemployment rate at or below 8 percent—it was 7.9 percent the day Obama was sworn in and peaked at 10.2 percent in October 2009—would all but ensure Obama’s reelection. They base this figure partly on past election results, and it sounds overprecise for the future. An uptick that leaves the rate higher—say, at 8.5 percent or more—could mean big problems for Obama. Of course, momentum and the country’s direction figure into all of this too. Since 1976, Ronald Reagan is the only incumbent to win reelection with the unemployment rate above 7 percent. It was 7.2 percent during his reelection campaign in 1984, but it had been as high as 10.8 percent in 1982. Obama might be lucky enough to have the same outcome as Reagan if the sense of the people this fall is that a definite corner has been turned.

Such arguments suggest an election that will indeed be won or lost on the fundamentals. But I think there is an element of politics here, too. Romney made an error, in my view, in building his campaign message in the early days around the idea that Obama had failed so completely to deal with the economy. I remember thinking at the time: But what if things improve? What will he say then? Sure enough, he has had to change his tack, at times sounding unconvincing. On March 21, as the Etch A Sketch story was exploding, Romney said that George W. Bush and Henry Paulson, Bush’s last Treasury secretary, deserved the credit for the recovery instead of Obama. Neither polls nor many respected economists support this view, to put it mildly; and worse, Romney allied himself with the still-unpopular ex-president, whom the Obama campaign would love to hang around Romney’s neck.

Ultimately, while the economy is usually the most important factor, it is never the only factor, and there is too much that happens in elections that the fundamentalist argument cannot explain. Last year, most Americans had a favorable impression of Mitt Romney. The website Real Clear Politics keeps obsessive note of these matters, and maintains a Web page showing the results of some seventy surveys that have asked for opinions about Romney since last spring. He was in positive territory in every one of them last year. But in the twenty-two polls taken since mid-January, he has been viewed more unfavorably in every poll except one. What changed? It was, according to the polls, nothing to do with the economy. Instead it was the decisions he made, and statements he let slip along the campaign trail, for example about the satisfactions of firing people, or his lack of urgency concerning the poor, or his single-minded determination to kill, not to negotiate, with the enemy in Afghanistan.

And not only such slips but deeper commitments, even more than a strong economic recovery, may end up being Romney’s problem. This primary-season trial-by-fire from which he is finally emerging forced him—or at least, he and his people decided that it forced him—to take many other positions that may alienate independent voters in November. Eric Fehrnstrom, aside from being glib, was wrong about expressed views being ephemeral. Romney can’t retreat from endorsing Paul Ryan’s budget and its dark implications for Medicare. He can’t say that he was just kidding about supporting the recent Republican congressional bill that sought to give not just religious institutions but any employers the right to deny contraceptive coverage on moral grounds, or about his vow to defund Planned Parenthood.

He can’t back away from a tax proposal designed to placate the far right, a plan that makes Bush’s 2000 proposal look positively generous to the middle class. He can’t renounce his support for Arizona’s harsh immigration laws. He can’t magically undo having opposed the auto industry bailout. Unforeseeable events could all break his way. And Obama, too, will face some difficult political challenges. However the Supreme Court decides the health care case, there are risks for him: if the Court overturns the individual mandate (or especially the entire law), he will be dealt a terrible political blow; while if the Court upholds the act, this would energize the right-wing voting base more fully than anything Romney could do.

A retreating economy gives Romney a chance. If it turns sour, he’ll have his shot at victory. But he’ll have to be a much better politician than he’s been during the primary—and Obama a much worse one than he was in 2008.

—April 11, 2012

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