After President Obama ran out to a commanding lead, the 2012 presidential race seemed all but over. But Mitt Romney has ensured the race will go down to the wire. The race has changed for many reasons, but most striking is how it has defied traditional campaign assumptions. Remember when Obama supporters insisted that Romney’s refusal to release tax returns was an issue that “wouldn’t go away” and would doom the GOP nominee? It did and has not. Or the view that presidential debates do not reshape a race (they do) or that heavy investment in campaign ads prior to the national conventions is too early to have an impact (an assumption Obama fortunately ignored)? And if the economy governs presidential election results, why has Romney gained as nearly every indicator has shown positive gains for the economy? The 2012 election now closely resembles the Bush-Kerry race, with Obama likely to win three states Kerry lost, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada.
This has been quite an unpredictable presidential race.
If you look at how nominees approach presidential campaigns, it is often through the lens of past efforts. Richard Nixon drew upon the lessons of his losing 1960 campaign to win in 1968, and Bill Clinton made sure to immediately rebut Republican attacks in 1992 because many felt Mike Dukakis’ failure to do so in 1988 cost him the election.
George W. Bush drew upon the lessons of his father’s summer of 1988 attacks on Dukakis to swift boat John Kerry in August 2004. And this led Barack Obama to make sure he aggressively responded to every attack throughout his fall 2008 campaign.
But conventional wisdom has been turned on its head in 2012.
Tax Record Issue Disappears
First, the GOP nominee’s failure to release more than two years of tax returns has evaporated as a campaign issue. It has been ignored in the three national debates, and no longer gets media coverage.
Unlike past campaigns where even false charges against candidates persisted---Mike Dukakis’s record on Boston Harbor, Al Gore’s “inventing” the Internet, John Kerry’s military record----Romney’s stonewalling successfully eliminated the tax record issue.
It seems that Romney and his people correctly understood that in a 2012 media environment fueled by constantly “breaking” news, the media would tire of the tax records issue and move on. It’s not that this disappearance of a once key issue is unprecedented--Bill Clinton’s “bimbo” problem was a big issue in the 1992 primaries but was ignored in the fall election---but rather that an issue that could have seriously hurt Romney suddenly evaporated without resolution (in contrast, Clinton’s televised denials ended the bimbo story).
Neither Obama nor Biden saw merit in reviving Romney’s non-release of his tax records in the debates. Either they feared being criticized for dredging up “old news” or felt they had milked all they could out of the issue.
Medicare to Vouchercare
One reason presidential campaigns avoid specifics on economic programs is the legacy of the late George McGovern’s 1972 campaign plan (he died over the weekend) that was spoofed and ridiculed as giving “$1000 to every American.” Although this plan---which would have bipartisan support today as a mini stimulus----never became part of the Party platform, it haunted McGovern throughout the 1972 campaign.
In contrast, the far more politically damaging Romney-Ryan plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program is now barely mentioned in election stories. Obama’s biggest leads in polls followed stories about Vouchercare, but as with the non-release of Romney's tax records, the media has moved on. Obama and Biden did attack Vouchercare during the debates, but the lack of media follow up reflects its new status as “old news.”
Social media, the Internet and the never ending wave of “new” news appears to make it easier for politicians taking politically damaging positions to “move on.” Romney's gains in Florida despite not renouncing Vouchercare confirm the issue is not hurting him as much now as when voters first learned about it.
Obama’s campaign team likely understood this changing dynamic, which is why they pounded Romney with negative advertising and news stories as early as spring. Republican operatives who thought these attacks were too early and would wear off by Election Day were wrong; in fact, had Obama not launched those attacks prior to the media’s all out election coverage, they would have been lost.
Obama’s early attacks were likely the single most significant strategic decision in the 2012 race. Yet it is hard to recall another presidential campaign that went after their opponent so early, defying conventional wisdom in the process.
After the election someone needs to do a thorough analysis of how and why Mitt Romney gained so much in the polls from the first debate. No presidential debate in history has had such an impact. George W. Bush did at least as poorly in all three debates against Kerry as Obama did on October 3, but his failings, while boosting Kerry, did not meaningfully change poll numbers.
Obama was listless in the first debate, but he did not make an egregious factual error President Gerald Ford did when he mistakenly said in the 1976 debate, “There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe." Although this was viewed as a terrible gaffe, Ford’s poll numbers continued to rise after the debate and he nearly won an upset victory.
Of all of the post-debate explanations for Romney’s sharp rise after October 3, the best is that Romney’s numbers were artificially low just prior to the debate because of his comments about the 47%. Nevertheless, nobody predicted that Romney’s numbers would jump so high after the debate, particularly considering the many economic reports that have since emerged showing an improving economy.
Contrary to traditional assumptions, rising consumer confidence has not been reflected in the race’s poll numbers. It’s quite unexpected that bad economic reports in early September corresponded with Obama gains, while Romney has gained as reports showed reduced unemployment and economic growth. Bill Clinton has observed that some voters are tired of waiting for an economic turnaround, and this seems to be trumping the fact that the numbers show it is already happening.
We are now looking at a race similar to 2004, where Bush won solely by eking out a victory in Ohio. I see Latino votes ensuring an Obama victory in Colorado and Nevada, and Obama has a much stronger ground operation in Ohio than Kerry (the latter overly relied on people like me flying in to run local electoral outreach efforts). Early voting in Ohio, legally barred in 2004, could prove pivotal in Obama winning the state.
The fundamental dynamics of this race once pointed to an easy Obama victory. But 2012 has shown that past electoral models have proven not to be solid predictors this year.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century