There are two sure signs a campaign is in trouble. The first is that it begins changing its strategy rapidly and erratically. The second is that it begins attacking its strategists fiercely and anonymously.
The Romney campaign is in trouble.
First came the changes in strategy. It went from doing everything possible to assure a “referendum” election to picking Paul Ryan as the vice presidential nominee and going for a choice election. It went from focusing relentlessly on the economy to cycling among welfare, Medicare and Libya. The latest ad is about manufacturing jobs in China.
Now we’re hearing the calls for a change in strategists. On Sunday night, Politico published a 2,700-word piece mostly dedicated to giving “Romney aides, advisers and friends” space to knife Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s top strategist. “I always have the impression Stuart must save his best stuff for meetings I’m not important enough to attend,” one Romney campaign insider told Politico. “The campaign is filled with people who spend a lot of their time either avoiding him or resisting him.”
On the presidential level, where everyone running campaigns is very, very good at their jobs, campaign infighting and incoherence tend to be the result of a candidate being behind in the polls, not the cause of it. Romney is behind and has been there for quite some time. According to the Real Clear Politics average of head-to-head polls, Romney hasn’t led the race since October 2011. The closest he came to a lead in the polls this year was during the Republican National Convention, when he managed to ... tie Obama.
Romney is also behind in most election-forecasting models. Political scientist James Campbell rounded up 13 of the most credible efforts to predict the election outcome: Romney trails in eight of them. He’s also behind in Nate Silver’s election model, the Princeton Election Consortium’s meta-analysis, Drew Linzer’s Votamatic model and the Wonkblog election model.
But I didn’t realize quite how dire Romney’s situation was until I began reading “The Timeline of Presidential Elections: How Campaigns Do and Don’t Matter,” a new book from political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien.
What Erikson and Wlezien did is rather remarkable: They collected pretty much every publicly available poll conducted during the last 200 days of the past 15 presidential elections and then ran test after test on the data to see what we could say about the trajectory of presidential elections. Their results make Romney’s situation look very dire.
For instance: The least-stable period of the campaign isn’t early in the year or in the fall. It’s the summer. That’s because the conventions have a real and lasting effect on a campaign.
“The party that gains pre- to post-convention on average improves by 5.2 percentage points as measured from our pre- and post-convention benchmarks,” write Erikson and Wlezien. “On average, the party that gains from before to after the conventions maintains its gain in the final week’s polls. In other words, its poll numbers do not fade but instead stay constant post-conventions to the final week.”
This year, it was the Democrats who made the biggest gains from before to after the conventions. Obama is leading by 3 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of polls, about double his lead before the Republican convention. If that doesn’t fade by the end of the week or so -- that is, if it proves to be a real lead rather than a post-convention bounce -- then there’s simply no example in the past 15 elections of a candidate coming back from a post-convention deficit to win the popular vote.
This is about the point where I’m supposed to write: That said, the race remains close, and the debates are coming soon. It’s still anyone’s game.
But the most surprising of Erikson and Wlezien’s results, and the most dispiriting for the Romney campaign, is that unlike the conventions, the debates don’t tend to matter. There’s “a fairly strong degree of continuity from before to after the debates,” they write. That’s true even when the trailing candidate is judged to have “won” the debates. “Voters seem to have little difficulty proclaiming one candidate the ‘winner’ of a debate and then voting for the opponent,” Erikson and Wlezien say.
Gallup agrees. The august polling firm reviewed the surveys it did before and after every televised presidential debate and concluded they “reveal few instances in which the debates may have had a substantive impact on election outcomes. “
The Romney campaign tends to point to two elections to show how its candidate could win this thing. There’s 1980, when Jimmy Carter supposedly led Ronald Reagan until the debates, and 1988, when Michael Dukakis was leading by 13 points after his convention. In fact, Reagan led going into the 1980 debates. And although Dukakis’s convention bounce was indeed large, it was wiped out by Bush’s convention bounce, which put him back in the lead.
That’s not to say Romney couldn’t win the election. A 3 percent gap is not insurmountable. But we’re quickly approaching a point where his comeback would be unprecedented in modern presidential history. And if the Romney campaign begins to crack under the pressure, then that comeback becomes that much less likely.