Everyone knows that the curtain came down on the 2012 GOP Primary a few weeks ago, but it wasn't until this week -- after Rick Santorum had taken his final bow, and Newt Gingrich finally stopped shouting about Delaware from the orchestra pit -- that the stagehands finally got to strike the set and put the costumes in storage for another four years. Mitt Romney went on his Northeast sweep of the April 24th primaries. Santorum offered Romney a non-endorsement endorsement on Piers Morgan's CNN show, "CNN Presents Piers Morgan, For Some Reason," and the Obama campaign team saluted reporters on a campaign conference call with a jaunty, "Welcome to the general election."
And that's basically that. A rowdy field of GOP candidates has furnished forth its party's champion, Mitt Romney -- the "next in line" figure from 2008 that we'd always figured would beat a weak field by outsmarting the fools and outspending the rest. Now Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama will get down to the business at hand: defining themselves, defining their opponents and defining the stakes of the election.
Much has been made of the "pivot" to the "center" that Romney will have to endure, and a lot of ink has already been spilled about the political costs he may or may not face from having to spend an awful lot of time catering to the desires of the GOP base. But there's no pivot more significant right now than how he engages Obama. We've seen a consistent message from Romney this week: Obama's a nice guy who's in over his head.
That message is tailored to driving a wedge between independent voters who -- while unsure about what's been accomplished in Obama's first term -- still personally like him. The pitfall here is that it's become an article of faith in the GOP base that Sen. John McCain lost in 2008 because he lacked the stomach to throw the high, hard stuff at Obama. How long can Romney stay aloof from that before they see the same story unfolding? We're going to find out.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is still feeling out how it'll go at Romney. On the one hand, it has the option of tying Romney to his own words: "I was a severely conservative governor." This is the strategy that former President Bill Clinton, in particular, has been urging. But Obama is keeping a populist card in his pocket as well -- figuring that broadly depicting Romney as an out-of-touch toff might drive swing state voters away from the Republican hopeful. The more Romney obliviously ridicules the wares of local bakeries, the more that works.
But while Romney's wealth remains something the Democrats hope to weaponize, the real story of the election won't be about the candidates' money -- it will be about yours. How much you're making, how much you're saving and how much you think you'll have four years from now. As Jonathan Chait points out, Romney's message is "very, very simple": "The economy has been bad since 2009, and voters should blame President Obama."
Obama will obviously have to counter that by painting Romney as the guy who'll take the country back to the Bush years, but he'll also have to develop some storytelling chops -- fast -- to explain what his administration did manage to solve. And he'll have to convince an electorate that's not as inclined toward being convinced as Obama might prefer.
Of course, the economy is not just going to affect the election in the way it allows the candidates to spin glib metaphors. It literally has an impact on how people vote. Consider what Larry Bartels wrote in The New York Times two weeks ago:
Sixty years of political history suggest that income growth in the months leading up to Election Day has a strong, consistent impact on the incumbent party’s re-election prospects -- what happens in the rest of a president’s term is mostly irrelevant. If the last 15 presidential elections are a reliable guide, income growth between now and Nov. 6 will matter more to voters than how the economy has fared through President Obama’s first 39 months in the White House.
Bartels adds: "This analysis suggests that an additional percentage point of real income growth in the second quarter of a presidential election year increases the incumbent party’s expected popular vote margin by more than 5 percentage points."
When does the second quarter of this presidential election year start? Four weeks ago.
And this is also where our coverage of the GOP primary ends. Next time you see us, we'll be on to the general, and bringing some focus to the key downticket races that will shape the fortunes of these rivals' parties. But for one last look back at the candidates and characters who made the primary season what it was, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of April 27, 2012.
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