Almost all of the opinion polls taken in the week following the Democratic National Convention have all pointed in the same direction: Barack Obama has a small, yet significant lead in his battle for re-election. These polls have depressed many Republicans and nothing the Mitt Romney campaign has been able to do in the past few days has relieved the sense of gloom in certain precincts of the right or diminished the glee being expressed in much of the mainstream liberal media.
At the root of this conservative depression is a sense that this is an election they couldn’t lose and they have reacted to the strength being shown by the Democrats with shock, disbelief and by tossing blame at the Romney campaign. These unrealistic expectations have endowed the president’s lead with a greater importance than it might otherwise have since even the most optimistic evaluations of his chances for re-election still put the race within pollsters’ margin of error. Yet rather than wasting time carping at Romney’s Boston headquarters or the candidate’s supposed missteps, the GOP needs to realize that all along they’ve been looking at this race through the wrong end of the binoculars. Instead of being shocked by the results, they ought to be somewhat encouraged or at least not be dejected by the numbers. Contrary to the right’s skewed view of the election, the president has huge advantages that, despite his failures, always gave him a leg up. The wonder is not that Romney isn’t ahead by 10 points, but that even liberal pollsters show him virtually even with Obama.
The strength shown by the Obama campaign and its ability to use its ace in the hole — a sympathetic mainstream liberal press — to help push public opinion in their direction on key questions, such as the blame for the economy, or about the character of the GOP positions on entitlement reform, should not have been a surprise. Nor should it shock anyone that an incumbent president, let alone one whose historic status as the first African-American in the White House renders him invulnerable to personal attacks such as those routinely used against Romney, should be winning.
It is true that the president’s record is generally one of failure at home and abroad. His only domestic achievements, the passage of a nearly trillion-dollar stimulus boondoggle that didn’t help the economy and his signature health care plan, are both unpopular. The recovery from the recession — dubbed the “Great Recession” by his supporters in the media so as to make his task seem even harder than it was — he inherited from his predecessor has been anemic and there is every indication that his policies of spending and debt will trigger another recession should he be re-elected. Abroad, other than the killing of Osama bin Laden, the president has nothing to boast about, having been rebuffed by the foes he sought to ingratiate such as Russia and Iran while alienating allies like Israel.
All that is enough to keep his approval ratings dangerously below 50 percent, but none of it changes the fact that as the first African-American president his mere presence in the White House makes a lot of Americans feel good about their country and themselves. What Republicans don’t understand is that these feelings or the willingness of much of the media to parrot Democratic talking points about Romney’s taxes or misstatements and the Republicans aren’t diminished by bad economic news or even foreign disasters such as attacks on American embassies in the Middle East. Though Obama may be as feckless as Jimmy Carter in many respects, he is an able politician and this was never going to be the rerun of 1980 many in the GOP foolishly expected. Nor was it going to be a repeat of the GOP’s midterm triumph in 2010 when the president’s policies were the issue but his name wasn’t on the ballot.
Rather than seeing the election as being one where their candidate is falling short of expectations, Republicans need to understand that they have misread this race all along. They should be pleased that a standard-bearer given to gaffes should be only a few points behind Obama even in the aftermath of the president’s post-convention bounce. Though Obama has the lead in the polls, he is still dependent on duplicating his party’s historic 2008 turnout rates. But he should not benefit from a false sense that Romney has lost an opportunity to generate a Republican landslide when none was ever possible.
The power of incumbency has always meant that any Republican had a narrow path to victory that depended on perfect execution of a campaign strategy of focusing on the economy while still being able to put forward a credible critique of Obama on foreign affairs. The Romney campaign is well short of perfection and the candidate has not always been perfectly on message either. But even so, he is very much in the fight and with luck and strong performances in the debates, he still has an opportunity to win.