To listen to some Democrats lately, President Obama’s re-election is in the bag. Most are convinced that Mitt Romney has too many problems connecting with ordinary Americans to be considered a serious threat to the president. Their confidence in their “cool kid” candidate and contempt for their opponents is such that many refuse to accept the possibility that the president is in for the fight of his life in an electoral environment that is radically different from the situation in the fall of 2008. And yet the evidence that the race is a virtual dead heat continues to be right there under their noses. The release today of tracking polls from the two leading firms confirms that the Democrats need to sober up about the competitive race that is about to unfold.
Gallup, whose results tend to skew slightly toward the Democrats, reports that Romney has a 47-46 edge for the period of April 24-29. Rasmussen, which tends to tilt slightly toward the Republicans, also shows Romney ahead for their last reporting period of April 27-29 by a similarly slim 47-45 margin. Both polls illustrate that the presumption that Romney has no chance is simply a Democratic fantasy that fails to take into account the general dissatisfaction with a failing economy. It also may show that the administration’s decision to spend the last week trying to politicize the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals might have been a bad mistake.
Team Romney issues this press release in reaction to losing the West Virginia caucus. It can only be described as the worst case of sour grapes in this campaign cycle. Mike Huckbee was the second choice of John McCain voters and wins a small caucus. Yes, the Romney camp had previously said things like: ““We have had the only organizational presence in West Virginia to speak of … It’s all Romney all the time.” However, this is not California and no one stole anything from anyone. Should this provoke a temper tantrum? Others think we are in meltdown mode.
As we wrapped up the day before Super Tuesday, it was an anti-McCain-fest from the Romney camp and his supporters. Talk radio and bloggers kept up the drum beat against McCain, bashing everyone from former GOP Presidential nominee and Senator Bob Dole to respected conservative journalists. The voice of (French) reason could nevertheless still be heard/read. (And yes, there is very little pro-Romney rhetoric being voiced by the McCain foes, perhaps an indication as to why McCain has been able to build a 20 point lead in national polls. It is hard to beat someone with simply a “not him” argument, no matter how loudly one argues.)
Although his own campaign clarified last week that Romney did not support Ann Coulter’s declaration that McCain and Hillary Clinton were politically identical, Romney released his own ad asserting they really were and contending, among other things, that both Clinton and McCain opposed the appointment of conservative judges. (Justices Alito and Roberts, whom McCain vigorously supported, don’t qualify as conservative?) McCain finally hit back with a TV ad pointing out that Romney’s infatuation with Ronald Reagan is of recent vintage.
What to say? There will eventually be a winner and a general election. If McCain does prevail and win the nomination, even some of the harshest critics will reverse course and support the GOP nominee they excoriated. Others will sulk, perhaps denying needed votes in a close general election.
Mostly, the role of much of the conservative new media will be clarified. The distinction between provocative discussion and electoral influence will be laid bare. It is one thing to provide an alternate source of information for conservatives, help shape policy debates and correct imbalances in the mainstream media; it is quite another to assume that a majority of Republican voters will follow ballot box advice. Clarity is important.
A few minutes before the start of the debate, I have begun to wonder whether this really will be a week of warfare between Mitt Romney and John McCain. I have received zero attack e-mails from the Romney camp today hammering McCain. That’s a big change in and of itself. There is more. This and my conversation with Romney spokesman Kevin Madden suggest there is no ad buy activity. Perhaps the expert businessman recognizes when an investment is not showing returns.
The latest Florida poll has McCain with a narrow lead and, in a sure sign the race is close, my in-box is fillling up with nastygrams from the Romney camp focusing on McCain’s un-Republican leanings. The most telling part of today’s poll is Rudy’s number: 15 perecent. As that number decreases (a function of the bandwagon effect and perhaps Mel Martinez’ endorsement of McCain) expect McCain’s to rise.
It is worth exploring how critical Florida is and for whom it is a “must win.” Despite pledges he would continue on, it is hard to see how Rudy, whose numbers are already dropping in February 5 states, would remain viable after a Florida loss. For Romney, a loss here would leave Michigan as his only win in a contested state and deprive him of a needed boost going into February 5, where he must take on both McCain and Huckabee, who remains a threat in Red states. Things would look grim. But, just as he soldiered on after New Hampshire and Iowa, he would have no reason to give up. (Romney said just that today.) McCain, who now is building leads in California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, could survive a close loss in Florida. However, the last thing he wants is to do is revive criticisms that he cannot win in a closed primary and set up a coast-to-coast battle with an opponent who has seemingly unlimited funds. So, on balance, Rudy is the only one who must win, Romney needs it very badly and McCain would sure prefer not to lose.
The day after the exquisitely polite debate, an nice old fashioned political food fight has broken out between McCain and Romney. McCain says Romney is a mere manager and not a leader. He also criticizes RomneyCare in a new web ad. Romney reads the oppo talking points to the media gaggle and tries to hang the New York Times endorsement around McCain’s neck and remind voters that McCain is cozy with Democrats. (The final point seems at odds with Romney’s assertion that only he comes to Washington free from animosity that prevents the parties from working to solve problems, but don’t look for consistency fours days before a critical election.) The public polling shows a dead heat, although some in the Romney camp are claiming they have this in the bag.
I tend to think that rather than these now predictable arguments, close elections turn on more mundane matters. Is McCain making progress with evangelicals? Does Mel Martinez’ endorsement monopolize local coverage going into the final weekend? Will Rudy sustain his support, cutting into McCain’s potential pool of voters, or will it slip away as the media picks up on the “what went wrong” theme?
Finally, it’s always a good idea to keep in mind that older voters turn out to vote in disproportionately high numbers. There are a lot of them in Florida and McCain in South Carolina and in some Florida polling has been doing well with his contemporaries. Despite Romney’s effort to woo back the over 65 set with an exemption from social security taxes (If Fred Thompson were around he’d be happy to point out how irresponsible this is given our entitlement crunch), they may be the deciding factor.
To judge from the dueling e-mails coming out of the McCain and Romney camps in the last few days, one would think we were back in New Hampshire. Romney is the flip flopper, McCain’s team explains; McCain, warns the Romney camp, is a tax-hiking open-borders proponent. However, aside from the e-mails, the race bears little resemblance to the one that took place only three weeks ago, in large part because McCain is running against a different candidate. Gone are Romney’s references to “full spectrum” conservatism and the “three legs of the conservative stool.” Romney’s latest TV ad does not even mention the word “Republican” and touts him instead as a Washington outsider. Phil Klein observes:
This is a clearly a persona that fits Romney much more comfortably, because it’s basically who he is–a moderate Republican businessman who believes that when competently managed, the government can help solve people’s problems.
There are at least a couple of problems with this. First, it assumes the Florida electorate reads no national newspapers and doesn’t watch the debates or national TV news. If this assumption is false, as it surely is, this becomes the “Darrin on Bewitched” problem–a whole new guy shows up and everyone is expected to act like nothing has changed. (Here, the two Romneys look more or less the same, but the transformation is no less startling.) This, of course, has the potential for voters to recognize another Romney “evolution,” this time from conservative stalwart to Ross Perot-like outsider.
The second problem is that there may not be an available voting bloc receptive to Romney’s message. Thompson’s absence and Hucakbee’s retreat from Florida were supposed to leave an opening for the New Hampshire Romney, the conservative standard-bearer. With Giuliani running on his New York success story and McCain on his role straightening out Iraq policy and rooting out government waste, it is not clear there is room for another Mr. Fix-It. Moreover, it is far from clear that Republicans want someone touting the wonders–like universal healthcare coverage–that can be achieved by an active federal government.
Nevertheless, as Klein points out, the newest Romney has a timely message and may be sincere. In that regard, he may actually win.