We can talk about 47 percent, the Libya stumbles, the lack of message discipline and a weak convention, but the simple fact is that the president and his team have had a better strategy than Team Romney from Day 1 and they have executed it to perfection. The result? Governor Romney has a damaged political persona and he's running behind the President in key states like Ohio, Virginia and -- to a lesser extent -- Florida. Losses in those three guarantee an Obama victory. With 47 days to go, the president has reversed his decline after his "you didn't build that" comment, is on a three week message win roll and is now likely to be reelected.
How did we get here? As usual, it hasn't been just one thing; instead, the cumulative impact of a series of external events and strategic and tactical moves by each team has resulted in a significant competitive advantage for the president. In no particular order, here is our take on the most important of those events:
- Romney entered the general election as a damaged and flawed candidate. Yes, this has happened to others who have rebounded, but this is different. Governor Romney's political persona was formed during the primaries when voters began to view him as elitist, rich and out of touch. This is where the Democrats' early advertising was crucial. Remember, Romney had to fight a two-front war as both Gingrich and the Democrats attacked Bain. It helped to galvanize a perception that has stuck like glue. Of course, miscues by the candidate and the campaign both old (the $10,000 bet) and new (47 percent) have reinforced this perception. That is why the 47 percent comment was so problematic. It was another layer on an already existing perception. The problem now is that this thing has hardened, making it virtually impossible to change.
- Team Obama's early advertising strategy to make Romney an unacceptable alternative worked. They were able to define Romney before he had a chance to define himself. Of course, the Romney team inadvertently aided that effort but not doing a substantial positive media buy to explain who Mitt Romney is and what kind of President he might be. Romney's favorability rating is currently underwater with 44 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable. In the latest WSJ/NBC poll only 38 percent of the electorate had a positive impression of him. According to the latest CBS/NYT poll, only 37 percent of Virginia voters think that Romney "cares about people like them." This is politically debilitating.
- Perceptions of the economy are improving. While unemployment remains high and GDP growth is abysmal, the stock market has improved (taking 401(k)s with it). Additionally, don't underestimate how effectively Team Obama has hammered home the idea that the president inherited a big problem. He has been saying it since he was inaugurated with extraordinarily good message discipline. Voters are likely to give him partial credit here.
- Obama's approval rating is now in the "likely reelect zone. " We have been saying for months that an approval rating in the low- to mid-40s makes reelection difficult. Since last year, however, Obama's approval rating has improved by 5-6 points. He is now at approximately 49 percent approval, which is comparable to where President George W. Bush was in 2004.
- The President had a strong convention and Romney had a weak one. Poor speeches and Eastwood's chair aside, the fact is that the RNC did not achieve its principal objective: to re-launch a re-branded Romney and create momentum heading into September. Forget all the talk about the convention's mechanics; this was about transforming the narrative. And they did not do that. Of course, the Democrats had the advantage of going second but the RNC did not put Team Obama on its heels. Speaking of which...
- Team Romney has been in reactive mode for a month. Of course, part of this is a continuous cycle of damage control but there does not appear to be a forward-looking strategy. By now, we fully expected to see some sort of economic proposal or initiative that would have forced the Obama campaign to respond. This has not happened.
- Last but certainly not least there was Libya. With respect to Team Romney, there seemed to be little recognition of the most basic political tenet of a foreign crisis: when there is an international incident in which America is attacked, voters in this country will (at least in the short term) rally around the flag and the president. Always. It is stunning that Team Romney failed to recognize this. In times of domestic crisis (the BP oil spill is a great example) voters will look to their political leaders and can be pretty quick to lay blame. On the other hand, it usually takes some time for voters to sour on how their leaders have handled international crises. Iraq is the perfect example.
- The result is that the President is now running ahead (beyond the margin of error) of Romney in key battleground states including Virginia, Ohio, Florida and New Hampshire. Ohio is particularly troubling since it is awfully hard to see a winning Romney coalition without it.
The biggest problem for Governor Romney is that he is underperforming with key subgroups that are critical to his election chances. Romney is running behind Obama -- as well as behind McCain's 2008 performance (as measured by exit polls) -- among women, Catholics and independents.
Of course there are six weeks left until Election Day. Among likely voters, nationally only two-three points separate the two candidates. The RCP average has the race at 48-45 percent, as does Pollster.com. Here are a few reasons suggesting that there is still some hope for Romney:
- The electorate is likely to look more like 2010 than 2008, so the President won't benefit from the explosion in young voters that occurred four years ago. It also means the Tea Party will have some influence. The question is how much? Romney needs to change the dynamic in order to reenergize his voters. Which brings us to the next point...
- The first debate on October 3rd will be critical. Yes, everyone says this, but we will go one step further: if Romney clearly wins the first debate, he has a good chance of reversing the trajectory of the last three weeks. Why? Because support for Obama remains lukewarm. Remember that the President won with 53 percent in an economic meltdown. Our sense is that his ceiling is around 51 percent. That is why he is not running away with this thing even after Romney's myriad stumbles. Further, history tells us that the debates can have a significant impact. In 2000, Bush got a bump after every debate and Gore's vote share diminished. In fact, according to Gallup polling at that time, Gore's eight-point lead vanished after the first debate.
- Finally, the economy is still weak and the jobs report on October 5th will be pivotal. A strong one may ensure an Obama victory. On the other hand, a poor one on the heels of a Romney debate win could realign this race.
More next week. Thanks to Pete Ventimiglia, Kelsey Cohen, Nicole Rusenko and Allison Quigley for their contributions to this Election Monitor. Follow us on Twitter: @Steve_Lombardo.
Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008, but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.