Although today’s Washington Post/ABC poll gives Mitt Romney no reason to panic–he’s down just one point among likely voters–it should at least raise a red flag: Romney does not seem to be pulling away on the economy, the centerpiece of his campaign. But even more frustrating for the campaign may be that Romney picked a fight he now seems to be losing: Medicare. According to the poll, he’s trailing the president on that question too.
Before Romney picked Paul Ryan as his running mate, Gallup’s polling showed that few were thinking about Medicare heading into the election. Think of it as the opportunity cost–which was raised at the time–of diverting the campaign messaging away from the economy. But you can divert attention from the economy if it’s to an issue voters care about, and if you can win the argument over it. Here’s Gallup’s mid-August chart of the “non-economic” issue voters thought presented the “most important problem” (most recent results from left):
See “care for the elderly/Medicare” way down there? It went from 1 percent to zero percent. Now, obviously introducing it as a major campaign theme will increase its importance. The New York Times claimed it had become a key issue in swing states, but their poll was so thoroughly discredited as to be useless. And if Romney does succeed in making Medicare a top voter priority, he has another problem: Gallup found two weeks ago that voters give Obama a 12-point advantage on that issue. (Today’s poll has Romney within five points on the question.) That may change, but it seems Romney may have mimicked, rather than learned from, Obama’s health care mistake. Even after Obama passed health care reform, making it by far the most talked-about issue, it remained low on the list of priorities for voters heading into the following election. With time, health care rose on that list of priorities–in part because voters hated the new law so much they resolved to get rid of it.
Obama made two mistakes: he ignored more important issues in favor of health care, and then lost the argument over it once he elevated it in voters’ minds. Romney has the winning argument on the economy, but he’s elevated an issue that just a month ago was far from voters’ top priority. If he loses the Medicare argument, he’ll replicate both of those mistakes.
This is not to say that Medicare shouldn’t be reformed. Indeed, entitlements need reforming even if it’s not too popular politically, and the Democrats’ Mediscare tactics are designed to uphold an unsustainable status quo and strike a devastating blow to the reform agenda in the service of maintaining their hold on power.
Which brings up another challenge for the Romney campaign: to succeed, they must convince voters that if Obama is re-elected, and then chooses to do nothing, entitlements will bring on a fiscal disaster.
It’s a worthy and responsible argument to make, but until voters develop that same sense of urgency, their campaign has shifted from facts (unemployment is high) to speculation (Obama will let Medicare go bankrupt). As I wrote after the Ryan selection, voters were enthused about having “a choice, not a referendum,” as the popular refrain went. But giving voters an argument isn’t good enough; Romney will have to win that argument too. Today’s poll is another indication that he’s struggling to do more than break even on this issue.