With the election only a day away, political statisticians agree that Barack Obama is favored to win reelection. The details vary -- Nate Silver gives Obama an 86.9 percent chance of winning while Princeton's Sam Wang calculates the president's reelection chances at 98.1 percent, but they all agree that a Romney victory would be a shocking upset. Mitt Romney's electoral struggles are the direct result of the Obama campaign's successful scare tactics, tactics that have been made effective by Romney's inability to stand up to the extremist fringe of the Republican Party.
Obama's reelection strategy has embodied a statement he made about the McCain campaign in 2008, "if you don't have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone to run from." From horror stories about Bain Capital to claiming Romney wants to destroy Medicare, they have run a relentlessly negative campaign intended to convince voters that Mitt Romney is someone who could not be trusted to be a city councilman, much less the president. When confronted with the failures of Obama's record, the campaign blames a combination of George W. Bush and Republican obstructionism, ignoring the responsibility of a president to rise above challenging circumstances through leadership and political savvy. There is no indication from his campaign that Obama will be somehow better at being president in his second term than in his first. Instead, the president simply promises that his four years will not hurt America the way Romney's four years would. These attacks are a poor substitute for a record of effective governance or economic recovery, but they have been effective enough when coupled with Romney's failure to meaningfully distinguish himself from Republican hardliners. Instead, Romney has been so afraid of losing conservative support that he has embraced otherwise unpopular positions in order to appeal to the Republican base.
At the beginning of the campaign, Romney held the sensible position that tax reform, rather than cuts in tax rates, was the responsible policy in an era when tax rates are at historic lows yet no comprehensive reform of loopholes and deductions has occurred since 1986. Republican primary voters were skeptical of his commitment to fiscal conservatism, so he added a 20 percent tax cut to his economic plan. Now, having surrendered sensibility to win the hearts of voters so economically illiterate they were enthralled by Herman Cain's nonsensical 9-9-9 tax policy, Romney is vulnerable to accusations that his tax plan will just give more to the rich while hurting the middle class.
On social issues, Romney likewise failed to inoculate himself against charges of extremism. There were countless moments in this campaign to stand up to hardline social conservatism: when Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut, when Todd Akin said pregnancy cannot result from legitimate rape, when Rick Santorum claimed that John F. Kennedy's speech about separation of church and state made him sick, and countless more. Yet despite these opportunities, Romney never denounced even one member of the Republican Party, no matter how bizarre their rhetoric. Given this spinelessness, it should be no surprise that Obama now enjoys a commanding lead on social issues.
This pattern of capitulation to extremism may have been necessary for Romney to capture the Republican nomination, but it has left him immeasurably weakened in the general election. The one major victory for Mitt Romney in the entire election was the first presidential debate. In that debate, America saw a moderate Republican who was focused on economic growth rather than ideological holy wars. While he was helped by Obama's poor performance, Romney's victory occurred because he presented himself as the safe, sane, and compassionate alternative to Obama's failed presidency. The momentum from this debate has allowed Romney to close the gap between himself and Obama, moving the election's conclusion from a foregone Obama victory to a possible, albeit unlikely, Romney victory. If that Romney had been the one voters had seen for the last year, he would be going into the election's home stretch as a favorite rather than a surging underdog. Romney would still have problems, namely Bain Capital, refusing to release more than two years of tax returns, and his off-putting awkwardness. Those problems would have made the campaign difficult, but against an incumbent president who has presided over a pitiful economic recovery and whose legislative achievements are unpopular, being rich and awkward would have been surmountable while the label of extremist looks like it will be fatal. If Mitt Romney loses tomorrow, this label will be why, and his cowardice about standing up to the extremists in his own party will be to blame.