For most of the last two years, if not the last four, many conservatives and Republicans assumed that Barack Obama could not be re-elected. A poor economy, an unpopular liberal agenda shoved down the throat of the country, and a largely uninspiring presidential leadership style combined to create a widespread belief on the right that the 2012 election would be a layup for them. We now know what some of us suspected for a long time: Republicans drastically underestimated the president’s appeal as a historic figure.
The postmortem on the Republican failure to defeat the president will go on until 2016, but the finger pointing within the party will largely miss the point. Their big problem was not Romney’s moderation (likely to be the right wing’s favorite theory); the influence of the Tea Party (the standard liberal interpretation); the failure to do outreach to Hispanics (though they need to address this problem); Romney’s inability to run against ObamaCare; the GOP standard bearer’s decision not to talk more about himself and letting the Democrats define him; the decision not to hammer Obama more over the Benghazi fiasco or even Hurricane Sandy.
The main obstacle to a Republican victory was that they were seeking to defeat the first African-American president aided by a supportive mainstream media, buttressed by the power of incumbency and what turned out to be a tremendously efficient campaign organization. Contrary to the delusion that Obama was a loser waiting to be knocked off, beating him was always going to be a long shot. Though the GOP will spend much of the coming weeks, months and years beating each other up as they assign blame for the defeat, the fact is, Romney did well to come as close as he did. Rather than wonder about what Republicans could have done better, conservative analysts would do better to look at the president’s strengths.
Conservatives have spent much of the last few weeks expressing skepticism about polls that showed President Obama winning the election. Democrats claimed this was merely a case of premature sour grapes. But that disbelief, which I shared, was rooted in a reasonable argument. Most polls showing Obama ahead had samples that showed an electorate that seemed to match the 2008 turnout model, in which the Democrats had a large advantage in partisan identification. It seemed highly unlikely that the Democrats could maintain that lead after four dispiriting years of the Obama administration. Surely, they reasoned, the partisan split would be a lot more even in 2012, and polls with more balanced samples showed Romney ahead.
Yet the exit polls currently being discussed on the networks’ elections coverage are showing a turnout model remarkably similar to 2008. That makes the polls look smart and those that staked their reputations on them — like the New York Times’s Nate Silver — even smarter.
Chris Christie reacted with characteristic venom after hearing that some Republicans are blaming him for undermining Mitt Romney’s presidential hopes. The New Jersey governor blasted anonymous Romney aides who have complained that he hasn’t taken any time to campaign with the candidate since Hurricane Sandy struck. Christie denied that he had rejected an invitation to appear with Romney at a Sunday evening rally in Bucks County, Pennsylvania just across the river from his office in Trenton. He told reporters today the report in the Huffington Post that he had turned Romney down was untrue:
I told him: ‘Listen, Mitt, if the storm hits the way they think it’s going to, I’m off the campaign trail at least through Election Day.’” “He said: ‘Chris, do what you have to do. Do your job and don’t worry.’ All this noise is coming from know-nothing, disgruntled Romney staffers who are mad at the fact I said nice things about the president. That’s too bad for them.”
No one should blame Christie for devoting himself to his state in a time of crisis, and Romney’s reaction to this was entirely appropriate. But by responding to an anonymous report in his usual extravagant blowhard style, Christie only gave a little more life to a story that he would have done better to ignore.
Much has been discussed throughout the election season about the two presidential candidates’ European preferences: Barack Obama has always been more comfortable with Western Europe, while Mitt Romney made it a priority to emphasize the oft-forgotten NATO allies to the east. But perhaps no one underscores the wisdom of Romney’s approach better than A.A. Gill–though unintentionally.
Gill, writing from London, takes to the pages of the New York Times to lecture America on Europe’s lost love for Obama. They had such high hopes for the worldly leftist. But Gill unwittingly demonstrates why Obama was leading much of the pre-election polling, despite presiding over an unpopular first term and sluggish economy: Obama was smart enough not to do what Western Europeans wanted him to do. It’s not a bad road map, ironically, for how to win a U.S. presidential election. Here’s Gill on the breaking of European hearts:
For most of the presidential campaign, the focus has been on Ohio. No Republican has ever won the presidency without the Buckeye State, and Barack Obama’s victory there was a crucial factor in determining the 2008 election. The two campaigns have not only poured millions into the battle there this year, but the candidates have also spent more time there than in any other state. Ohio will be crucial, but the real key to understanding whether Obama or Mitt Romney will win tonight may come in Virginia.
It will be difficult, but still possible, for Romney to win without Ohio. He can make up for a defeat there by taking other swing states, such as Colorado or Wisconsin, or by pulling an upset in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Yet the GOP cannot take back the White House without Virginia. Indeed, if after the polls close there at 7 p.m. (EST) tonight the numbers show Obama pilling up a huge lead in the D.C. suburbs, that will be a sign that the long election night most of us are anticipating may be a lot shorter than we thought. On the other hand, if Romney posts competitive totals in northern Virginia, that will be an indication not only that he can take back a state Obama won in 2008, but that the turnout figures there — and perhaps around the country — will conform more with GOP expectations than those of the Democrats. More than anything else mentioned by the pundits, this is the key to the election.
To listen to the Obama campaign and many liberal pundits the last few days, the presidential election is a foregone conclusion and the president is a sure bet to be re-elected. But even though there’s no question the Democrats gained ground over the last week, the latest national tracking polls tell a different story. The president is ahead in none of the four most recent national tracking polls. Mitt Romney has a slender one-percentage point lead in both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls taken over the last few days, while he is tied with the president in the CNN/Opinion Research and the Monmouth/SurveyUSA/Braun poll. Taken together, and even if one is inclined to believe one more than another, the quartet of surveys illustrates that the race remains very close with either candidate in position to win.
The polls, which continue to show Romney leading among independents by a large margin, also demonstrate that the key to victory tomorrow will be turnout. Romney continues to do better among likely voters than among all those registered, something that will require Democrats to get all of their supporters out to vote. But if Republican enthusiasm continues to run high, it will be difficult for Democrats to replicate the 2008 electorate, in which they had a huge partisan identification advantage. These national numbers may not translate into an edge for Romney in individual battleground states like Ohio. That means we are looking at a possible replay of 2000, when the winner of the popular vote did not win the Electoral College. Yet Romney’s camp has to believe that if they wind up with more votes overall, that is bound to translate into some upsets in swing states where most of the generally less scientific statewide polls continue to show Obama leading. That may not be how things play out, but these national numbers have to sow some doubts in the minds of Democratic strategists who know the odds of the loser of the popular vote getting 270 electoral votes is still a long shot.
When the Republican Party took back control of the House in 1994, a confluence of events combined to make it even more of a watershed moment than it would otherwise have been. The fact that the GOP had been out of power in Congress for four decades gave it an “underdog” storyline. Newt Gingrich, who led the “revolution,” was combustible and charismatic and understood better than most politicians of his time–especially his fellow Republicans–how to garner attention and win a news cycle. And CNN’s breakthrough coverage of the first Gulf War a few years earlier created a new cable TV news landscape perfectly set up to cover the Gingrich-Clinton drama as it unfolded.
The Republican takeover that year had lasting effects, not least because of the fact that Republicans suddenly kept winning, even as they became more politically conservative and developed a party agenda that was more than just standing athwart the Democrats’ plans yelling “Stop.” That post-1994 new normal held steady until the first Obama term and this election season, combined with the new prominence of social media and grassroots conservative fundraising prowess, created another such political tectonic shift: the rise of the fiscal conservative reformers. And there is perhaps no more recognizable leader of this conservative core than vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.
At the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky wonders what the conservative reaction would be like if Mitt Romney loses tomorrow:
What’s the state of mind this weekend of the conservative outrage machine? With regard to liberals, I think it’s fair to say as of Saturday that most of us (excepting your allowed-for percentage of nervous nellies) expect Barack Obama to win. If he somehow doesn’t, we’ll be surprised and deeply depressed. But provided the outcome doesn’t involve some kind of Florida-style shenanigans, in a couple days’ time, we’ll come to terms with it.
Meanwhile–conservatives? I think that they are certain that Mitt Romney will win and that all information to the contrary is a pack of lies; that they will be completely shocked and outraged if he doesn’t; that, if he loses, it will be the inevitable product of foul play; and that therefore they’ll immediately start scouring the landscape looking for parties to blame and will keep themselves in a state suspended agitation for…days, weeks, four years, forever. Which wouldn’t matter to the rest of us but for the fact that they’ll continue to have the power to screw up the country.
I somehow doubt that the left or Tomasky would accept Obama’s loss as graciously as he likes to imagine. (This is the same person who once described Romney as a “spineless, disingenuous, supercilious, race-mongering pyromaniac who is very poorly intentioned indeed, and woe to us if this man sets foot in the White House as anything but a tourist.”) And as usual, Tomasky is completely off-base when it comes to conservatives.
A week ago, as Hurricane Sandy headed up the East Coast, Mitt Romney looked to be consolidating his recent gains in the polls. A week later, with many still suffering from the impact of the storm, Romney’s momentum has ebbed and Democratic optimism is off the charts. Assuming that the Democrats are right and Romney loses, was this all the fault of the storm in which President Obama got to play commander-in-chief and take the credit for what has been depicted in the press as an effective federal response to the crisis?
The answer here is: not really. The storm didn’t hurt the president and certainly didn’t help Romney, as it took the focus off politics for a crucial few days (much as the hurricane that threatened parts of the country during the Republican National Convention at the end of August undermined the GOP’s hopes for pulling off a successful infomercial). But the reason it played so well for the president is directly related to the inherent advantages that have always made Romney’s effort an uphill climb: incumbency and a mainstream media in the tank for Obama and determined to portray him as successful even when the facts don’t justify the cheerleading. Though many conservatives have spent this year assuming the president was toast, this latest setback for Republicans is yet another reminder of how out of touch they were with political reality. The election is by no means the foregone conclusion that many liberals are claiming this morning; unless the Democrat turnout matches that of 2008, the pollsters and pundits predicting an Obama victory will look very foolish on Wednesday morning. But the impact of the hurricane on the race demonstrates that beating Obama required a little luck as well as a good candidate and a competent campaign.
In parts one and two of this series, I discussed President Obama’s often problematic relationship with Israel. While noting his decision not to interfere with the existing security relationship between the two countries, there is no doubt that the alliance has suffered from his lack of empathy for Israel, his active hostility toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and doubts about his willingness to do more than talk about the threat from a nuclear Iran. But the other side of the question facing pro-Israel voters is whether Mitt Romney provides a clear alternative to Obama on Israel-related issues.
Romney would come into office with a lot of good will from Israelis, whom polls show prefer him to Obama. He also has a better relationship with Netanyahu (though it is hard to imagine anyone having a worse one). But arguments for Romney on Israel-related issues have a lot more to do with the fact that he is not Barack Obama than with his own virtues. Though there are some fundamental differences between the two that speak well for Romney, Jewish Republicans are in some respects taking a leap of faith about the GOP candidate in much the same way as some Democrats did with Obama.
If you listen to President Obama’s Jewish surrogates, you hear them tell you that Barack Obama is the best friend Israel ever had in the White House. According to the president’s Jewish detractors, he is one of its worst foes and his re-election could lead to its destruction. Where does the truth lie?
Let’s start with one clear fact. Israel’s survival does not depend on who is elected president of the United States. As important as the U.S.-Israel alliance may be — and it is absolutely vital to the state of Israel’s well-being and security — the Jewish state will not collapse if Barack Obama is re-elected. Nor will it enter a new golden age if Mitt Romney wins. Responsibility for Israel’s defense falls primarily on the shoulders of someone who is not on the ballot on Tuesday: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If the president of the United States seeks in the next four years to pressure Israel to do something that will undermine its security, Netanyahu — or one of his opponents, should he fail to be re-elected in parliamentary elections that will take place the day after the American president is inaugurated — can say no, just as his predecessors have done. Israel’s leaders have rarely been shy about taking unilateral or pre-emptive action to forestall a threat, and that won’t change. It should also be pointed out that the infrastructure of the U.S.-Israel relationship is so deeply entrenched into America’s political culture that even should the president seek to significantly alter or undermine that alliance, the political price for such a decision would be so costly as to deter all but the most fanatical ideologue.
That said, there would be significant differences between a second Obama administration and a first one for Romney in terms of the impact on Israel.
Those inclined to consider the talk about the embrace between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy as being more the result of hyperactive political reporting on the eve of the election than a genuine controversy might have been right. But yesterday’s Politico story about the governor being Mitt Romney’s first choice to be his running mate lent credence to the notion that there was some substance to the notion that Christie was up to something. The anonymously sourced story seemed to indicate Christie was the likely veep nominee until late in the process when he was suddenly dropped in favor of Paul Ryan. The upshot of the piece seemed to be that Christie and his friends were mad about being used as decoys or thought he had been snubbed.
All this is leading some observers to not unreasonably connect the dots between this, Christie’s convention speech in which he barely mentioned Romney, and his much-publicized post-hurricane “bromance” with Obama. Whether they are right about that is an open question, but there is little doubt that if Christie doesn’t want Republican activists (whom presumably he will need if he runs for president in the future) holding a grudge against him for sandbagging their candidate in the last week of a close race, then he needs to listen to this New York Post editorial and give the country a loud and clear reminder that he wants Romney to win on Tuesday, not Obama.
As I wrote last night, liberal analysts are right when they point out that the preponderance of state polls have greatly strengthened President Obama’s hopes for re-election. But a couple of the latest ones published this morning contradict that conviction, which caused New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to claim only stupid people think the election is not a cinch for Obama. One Democratic-leaning pollster has Romney ahead by one point in supposedly deep-blue Michigan, while a new Pennsylvania poll shows the race there deadlocked.
These may be outliers, but even a Nobel laureate (and, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to say, “former Enron advisor”) like Krugman is smart enough to understand that if Romney wins Pennsylvania and Michigan, Obama has virtually no chance to get to 270 electoral votes. The point here is that while we are all rightly focused on who will win Ohio, the president’s hold on a number of states that were thought to be likely Democrat wins is far from secure. What’s happened in the last month since the Denver debate turned the race around is not just a surge of Republican strength in the South and the West but a surprising comeback for the GOP in the rust belt and the Midwest.
Remember this story the next time you hear Democrats lament the “philosophy of obstructionism” in the “extremist” Republican-controlled House:
“Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his ‘severely conservative’ agenda is laughable,” Reid said in a statement released by his office.
“In fact, Mitt Romney’s tea party agenda has already been rejected in the Senate. In the past few months, we have voted down many of the major policies that Mitt Romney has run on, from the Ryan plan to end Medicare as we know it, to the Blunt Amendment to deny women access to contraception, to more tax giveaways for millionaires and billionaires, to a draconian spending plan that would gut critical services for seniors and the most vulnerable Americans.”
Reid added: “Mitt Romney has demonstrated that he lacks the courage to stand up to the tea party, kowtowing to their demands time and again. There is nothing in Mitt Romney’s record to suggest he would act any differently as president. As governor of Massachusetts, he had a terrible relationship with Democrats, cordoning himself off behind a velvet rope instead of reaching out to build relationships. And in the near-decade that Mitt Romney has spent running for president, both his words and his actions have shown that pleasing the far right is more important to him than working across the aisle.”
The latest crop of opinion polls has generally brought good news for Democrats. The Real Clear Politics average of all the national polls has given President Obama a slight lead, after this poll of polls had shown him trailing since Mitt Romney’s post-Denver debate comeback changed the race. Even more important, polls of likely voters in the battleground states have given the president leads in most of them. This caused New York Times blogger Nate Silver to double down on his forecast predicting an Obama win. According to Silver, Obama now has an 83.7 percent likelihood of prevailing on Tuesday.
We’ll leave aside the arguments about Silver’s odds-making, which depicts what even most liberals concede is an extremely close election as a near certain Obama win. Suffice it to say, as I wrote on Thursday, Silver’s belief that Obama had a field goal lead with 3 minutes left in the game (which he may now think is more like a 4-point lead with 2 minutes left) is based on a belief that the polls he trusts are accurate. On Saturday, however, he returned to the question that has to be haunting his readers: what if these polls aren’t accurate? While he admits the possibility, he thinks it unlikely that so many surveys could be in error. That seems logical, even persuasive. But the problem with that assumption is the same as it has been for the past month. Most of the polls showing Obama ahead either nationally or in some states reflect a common bias: their sample reflects a picture of the electorate that resembles the 2008 Democratic advantage. But this year we expect the gap in party identification to be smaller. In short, unless the Democrats match or exceed the massive “hope and change” surge of four years ago, then what Silver and the Democrats who look to his column for encouragement fear will be true: all the pro-Obama state polls are going to turn out to be quite wrong.
When the economy is stuck at around 8 percent unemployment for years heading into a presidential election, and the incumbent is desperately avoiding questions about a foreign policy fiasco, most other issues are bound to fade from priority. And so the issue of education in America has duly taken a back seat this year. But that doesn’t mean the issue has been stagnant in the minds of Americans.
In fact, over the last couple of years we have seen a striking change take place in public opinion. The support for school choice and public union reform in places like Wisconsin and New Jersey have shown that even while school choice and voucher programs have yet to prove themselves a solution to the ailing American education system, the support for school reform even in blue states and among pro-union parts of the country signify a willingness to break with tradition on the part of frustrated parents. On that note, while education hasn’t been much a part of the election this year, Mitt Romney did include it in his closing argument, delivered in Wisconsin today:
The volume of Republican resentment of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for what many in his party think was an overenthusiastic embrace of President Obama has gotten louder. The Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson speculated on the Rush Limbaugh radio show this week that Christie was doing more than venting a latent resentment of Mitt Romney. He said it showed Christie wanted “a clean slate” when the governor runs for president in 2016, something that would be impossible if Romney was the incumbent president that year planning his re-election. Carlson was not the only person saying that, since the pictures of the unlikely “bromance” between Obama and Christie became the new symbols of bipartisanship.
But angry Republicans need to tone it down a bit. Though I don’t count myself among Christie’s biggest fans, and think the assumption that his tough guy persona will work as well on the national stage as it does in New Jersey is probably mistaken, I doubt that his goal this week was to slip a knife into Romney’s back. His emotional response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy was genuine, as was his gratitude for federal help. But if there was any political motive in the back of his mind this week as he went about his duties amid the chaos of the hurricane, it was probably related to what will happen in 2013, not 2016. Whatever Christie may be thinking about Romney these days, any softening of his hard partisan image has a lot more to do with a desire to set the stage for his re-election campaign next year than it does with a possible future presidential run.
Democrats are hoping that the Romney campaign’s decision to invest both time and money in Pennsylvania the last weekend before the election is a sign that the GOP is doomed. Memories of John McCain swooping into the Keystone State four years ago in a futile attempt to gain ground in a state that he would lose by better than 10 percentage points encourages Democrats who believe Romney is making the same mistake. But that was then, and this is now.
Though Romney must still be considered a heavy underdog in Pennsylvania, there’s little doubt that the race has tightened and that a Democratic victory there is no longer a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the Obama camp’s assumption that Romney’s move is rooted in a desperate attempt to craft an Electoral College majority without Ohio may also be dead wrong. Far from conceding the key tossup states to Obama, Romney may be sensing an opportunity to win states few thought he had a chance to take only a few weeks ago.
Alana asks a very good question: Is an election on big ideas even possible when Barack Obama is one of the candidates? Another way of asking this would be: What would Barack Obama’s mandate be if he wins? It’s not an easy question to answer. He can certainly argue that, while he’s not proposing any serious plans or policies, he would at least protect the public from Mitt Romney, who would strive to outlaw whatever it is they like. But, like his accusation that Romney would ban abortion, the claims are made up out of whole cloth, and therefore easily debunked.
And that explains why the president looks so lost. I am not among those who think Obama’s visit to the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy elevated him much above his challenger, in part because it’s been so long since he acted presidential that he just looks so out of place everywhere people are trying to do serious work. This is not to take any credit away from him for the federal services provided to victims of the storm, but his press conference and appearances with Chris Christie did not seem to be much to his benefit. Christie was lively, authoritative, empathetic, and always prepared with important information. Obama read names of mayors off a paper in front of him, expressionless and monotone, as if he were standing not in front of a disaster area but a green screen. Michael Bloomberg correctly asked the president to please stay away from New York City, where he would only be a burden, due especially to the traffic congestion caused by road closures, mass transit suspensions, and the malfunctioning crane at 57th Street.
There’s been probably too much attention paid to New York Times blogger Nate Silver over the last few weeks. Some of the criticism he has received (including some from this page differing with his conclusions if not necessarily always with his methodology) has been justified. But in fairness to Silver, he appears to be sticking to his guns about the accuracy of his forecast that continues to show President Obama as a heavy favorite to win re-election. While not intending to belabor the issue of his accuracy more than necessary, I think it’s worth returning to the subject one more time both in order to clarify my differences with his approach.
Silver explained his forecast again this morning as he surveyed the latest round of polls on the presidential race:
Mr. Obama is not a sure thing, by any means. It is a close race. His chances of holding onto his Electoral College lead and converting it into another term are equivalent to the chances of an N.F.L. team winning when it leads by a field goal with three minutes left to play in the fourth quarter. There are plenty of things that could go wrong, and sometimes they will.
But it turns out that an N.F.L. team that leads by a field goal with three minutes left to go winds up winning the game 79 percent of the time. Those were Mr. Obama’s chances in the FiveThirtyEight forecast as of Wednesday: 79 percent.
Not coincidentally, these are also about Mr. Obama’s chances of winning Ohio, according to the forecast.
That is a reasonable sounding point of view, especially when it is coupled with Silver’s disclaimers about the possibility that his forecast could be wrong and noting that a lot of tossup states that he believes Obama will win are still closely contested. But the problem here is that despite Silver’s confidence that what we are looking at is a three-point lead for the president, it may be nothing of the kind, either in Ohio or in the country as a whole. The probabilities he alludes to in sports–such as those that can give us precise statistical odds about what happens when an NFL team has a field goal lead with three minutes to play or a Major League baseball team has a two-run lead in the ninth inning–are entirely accurate and reliable because there’s no doubt in a game as to what the score is. In politics there is no such certainty, rendering Silver’s rational Sabrmetric approach to political polling mere guesswork.