Saturday, May 12, 2012

The State of the Race For President

In just under six months, about half of all voting age eligible adults will select our next President.  While the election has been running full blast on the cable news networks and the "blogosphere," most Americans know little more than who the two competitors are and that one is Democrat and the other a Republican.  So where do we stand?

The National Media Is In Wall-To-Wall Campaign Mode.  I'm a political junkie, but the granularity of national media obsession with this race is dizzying.  Turn on MSNBC, FOX or CNN, not to mention the lead stories (most nights) on CBS, NBC and ABC, and you are certain to hear about stories involving either President Obama or Governor Romney. The ubiquity of Twitter, online blogging and the 24/7 news cycle demands a never ending stream of "news" to report, comment and opine on.  To that end, the media have lost all perspective on what "news" is, and instead, has elevated the serious and the stupid to equal levels of discourse.  Important topics like the War in Afghanistan share the stage with jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner and how Mitt Romney snubbed someone's cookies at a campaign event in Pennsylvania. A war on women is declared, and then the right-wing declares a "war" on people using the term "war." When in doubt, just TiVo/DVR The Daily Show, no other program does as good a job eviscerating the idiocy that passes for mainstream news coverage in 2012. 

National Polling Means Nothing (Right Now).  The breathless reporting (see above) often centers on the poll de jour. Ignore all of them.  First, we don't elect our President based on the popular vote, just ask Al Gore (or Sam Tilden - but he's dead), so national polling is essentially meaningless.  Even if you do credit national polls, consider that two of the last three elections were near 50/50 splits between the two parties and even in 2008, as the economy was cratering and the outgoing President had the lowest approval ratings since Herbert Hoover, Obama "only" won 53-46 (1% "other"). So any national poll that shows a big lead for Obama or Romney, take with a huge grain of salt.

The Election Will Be Won or Lost in Less Than 10 States.  When you hear some Republican operative claiming Romney is going to compete in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Michigan, immediately change the channel.  Ditto when a Democratic talking head claims the President has a shot in Georgia or Texas.  Campaigns do a lot of head fakes, especially when they, or their surrogates, have money to spend.  So Romney might just spend an afternoon in Mendham come September, and he may get some press coverage along the lines of "Romney competing in New Jersey?" but ignore it.  The race will be won or lost in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Virginia and North Carolina. These states will experience a minor economic stimulus as campaigns, the press and tens of millions in advertising flow into these "purple" states.  If you want to follow polls, follow these states. 

The Ground War, Not Independents, Will Win The Race.  TV will be saturated with commercials, by both campaigns, outside groups and party committees trying to sway mythical independent voters; however, the race will be won on the ground by the party that does a better job getting its voters to the polls.  But what of those mythic independent voters, you ask?  You know the ones - Tom Friedman fetishizes them as craving some magical "third way" candidate who will bring the proper balance of social liberalism and fiscal conservatism to the White House (ignoring the present tenant, naturally).  They have the Simpson/Bowles Executive Summary hanging on their refrigerators, have kids studying Mandarin in charter schools and know at least one gay couple.  Yeah, them.  Only problem, they don't exist.  I don't mean literally, but figuratively.  Most pollsters will tell you that while a fair percentage of the electorate "self-identifies" as independent, when quizzed a little further, most show strong party identification (based on prior voting patterns) for one party or the other.  These voters interpret "independent" as "free thinking," not "party switching."  Truth be told, the number of true "independent" voters is probably between 5% and 10%, and while not insignificant, not the be all/end all of political science either.  If you don't think get out the vote matters, consider off years like 2010, where the electorate that turned out was whiter, older and wealthier, and thus, more sympathetic to Republicans, resulting in massive gains for the GOP. 

The October Jobs Report Will Be Meaningless.  A favorite bigfoot reporter trope is that the vaunted October jobs report, which will come out the Friday before the election, will be meaningful.  This is nonsense.  What will matter are the next 3-4 months of jobs reports, whether they show a slow but continuing drop in the unemployment rate through modest, yet steady job growth, or begin to tick up because job growth slows and/or retracts. These reports will provide a far more accurate picture of our economic situation than ONE report that happens to come out four days before the election.  The chances that the October report will be gangbusters big or depth of the Great Recession bad are small.  If the report is either one, the likelihood is that prior months would have teased that trend, making October reinforcing, not altering, and in that way, more predictive of where the election is heading.

The Power of Republican Super PACs Will Be Both Enormous & Marginal.  Any true lawyer can parse ideas or hold two inconsistent ones in their head simultaneously.  Behold! The miracle of the Super PAC.  On the one hand, the RNC and Romney campaign will outsource the sliming of Obama to Restore Our Future, Crossroads GPS, and whatever fringe, unnamed, donors not revealed, hit job Super PACs pop up to carry Romney's mud.  This strategy was used to powerful effect in the Republican primaries, where Restore Our Future carpet bombed any and every opponent that popped up to challenge Romney and buried them under an avalanche of negative ads.  The theory goes that by allowing outside groups to do the dirty work, Romney will be able to run mostly positive ads, while Obama, without the benefit of hundreds of millions in outside dollars flowing to his Super PAC, will have to go negative directly through his campaign, thereby sullying his "hope and change" image.  

I disagree with this theory because I do not think most voters think there is a distinction between Super PACs and the candidates they support.  Moreover, my guess is that the media will more closely scrutinize the shadowy way Super PACs operate and the idea that they are largely funded by a small group of obscenely wealthy people (at least on the Republican side) will mitigate their impact.  Further, and as noted above, the number of "persuadable" voters is not that big.  At a point, saturation occurs and all these ads will result in diminishing returns.  The "free" advertising of the Presidential debates will drive discussion and campaign narrative for more than attack ads.

Speaking Of Debates …  Wow.  Not that the debates have not been important in prior cycles, but the rise of social media would suggest this year's debates will be particularly impactful. If you go back and watch The War Room, there's a great scene where, after a debate, George Stephanopoulos is seen running behind the scenes barking out "messaging" in the immediate aftermath of a debate (something about Bush being on the defensive).  Now, messaging is in real time, as it is happening, online and open to anyone with a computer and Internet connection.  How much, and to what extent, the campaigns are able to leverage that fact will shape perception after each debate.  That's a huge deal, because those (presumed) three debates will be political Super Bowl moments where tens of millions of Americans tune in and read about the day after.  

The Election Will Be Close. John McCain scraped the bottom of the electoral barrel for modern-day Republicans, collecting 173 electoral votes (EVs) by winning most of the old Confederacy, Texas and some states in the Plains and Rocky Mountains.  The 2008 map turned blue in North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana, which had not gone Democratic since 1976 (NC) and 1964 (VA & IN) respectively.  In addition, because Nebraska apportions some of its electoral college delegates by Congressional district, Obama collected one EV in the Cornhusker State. Even if the election in November was the same as it was in 2008, Romney would pick up a net 6 EVs based on population growth from the 2010 census.  Of course, while it is true that the Republicans have only won the popular vote in one of the last five Presidential elections, deep seated animus toward the President, combined with the difficulty he will have in again winning at least two of those "once in a generation" three red-to-blue (IN and NC), and assuming Romney holds all the states McCain won in 2008, would bump his electoral total to 205. 

Obama, meanwhile, will be defending himself from all out assaults in Florida and Ohio, which, if he lost, would move Governor Romney close to the "magic" 270 EV needed to claim the Presidency.  Further, Obama does not have a lot of room for growth. Perhaps Arizona based on Romney's strident anti-immigration rhetoric during the campaign and maybe Montana, but otherwise, absent an enormous economic recovery where 300,000 to 400,000 jobs are created each month and the unemployment rate plummets below 6%, that 2008 map squeezed every last EV out of the country a Democrat could hope to get. If nothing else, a 6 point national win for Obama, even if he wins 300-325 EVs (which is my guess), is highly unlikely. 

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