Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse is out with a new memo arguing that despite whatever convention bounce Obama is getting, Mitt Romney is going to win the presidential race. The crux of his case is that the Obama economy is simply too horrible for the President to have any chance at reelection — and that the campaign will unfold as the 1980 campaign did:
The stakes are very high in this election, and voters understand the future of our country is on the line. This may be lost on those living within the hyper-political world in and around the Beltway, but it is not lost in communities in battleground states. In short, the Romney-Ryan campaign understands Americans struggling in the Obama economy will determine the outcome of the race, and once the preponderance of information about the President’s failed policies — combined with Mitt Romney’s vision to strengthen the middle class — are communicated,our nation will move in a different direction....
Political campaign historians will recall President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by a near double digit margin late in the fall in 1980. In that race, the voters made their decision based on the key issues confronting the nation and it determined the outcome. On the economy, the most important issue of this race, Mitt Romney leads by 51%-45%, according to the most recent CNN/ORC poll.
It is stunning that the Romney campaign continues to rely on this flawed historical comparison. First, the polling. Despite the mythologizing to the contrary, Gallup polling shows that Reagan was leading Carter heading into the conventions. John Sides has suggested Reagan may have actually led throughout most of the race. By contrast, as Alex Burns puts it, “we’re now less than 60 days from the election and Romney hasn’t established a decisive lead in a single swing state.” Spot the difference there?
There are plenty of other key differences. The economy was in worse shape in 1980 than it is today. Jimmy Carter could easily be criticized for mismanaging the economy and foreign affairs, given the Iranian hostage crisis. Obama, by contrast, consistently polls better than Romney on national security. What’s more, as Reagan biographer Craig Shirley has explained, the electorate of 1980 is vastly different than it is today. Far more states were in play, and Dem swing voters — the so-called “Reagan Democrats” — formed a much bigger chunk of the Democratic Party, making a late break of such a significant magnitude much more feasible than today. The electorate is far more polarized and the map far narrower this time around.
Ed Rollins, who worked on the Reagan campaign in 1980, notes yet another key difference: Romney is not Reagan, and Obama is not Carter. As Rollins says of Romney: “On his best day, he’s not a Ronald Reagan.” Carter was partly undone because of his debate performance; that’s less likely to happen to Obama.
The basic Romney theory of the race seems to be that there is simply no way Obama can win, given the state of the economy. As Newhouse’s memo notes, once voters come to their senses about his “failed policies,” Romney will win. It’s that simple. But again, the belief that true undecided voters have concluded, or will conclude, that Obama completely failed may prove to be a serious misreading of the race. Those voters may be taking a far more nuanced view of the situation and may be viewing this as a choice election — on a range of issues. And if this is right, the failure to appreciate this may be encouraging the Romney camp to underestimate its need to offer a clearer substantive alternative as to what he would do for the middle class.
The Romney campaign seems to believe the idea that the Obama presidency was a total failure is baked into this election and will inevitably dictate the outcome, as in 1980. The Romney camp seems to be relying heavily on its own data to reach this conclusion. However, the Obama campaign has also conducted intensive research into true undecided voters, and Obama advisers are convinced they have a better understanding of who these voters are and what motivates them than Romney’s team does. The Obama camp believes that they simply will not break towards Romney in the overwhelming numbers he will need if Obama holds a two to three point lead in the key battleground states.
To be clear, Romney could still win this election. But if he does, the supposed similarities to 1980 won’t be the reason why. What this constant daydreaming about 1980 really suggests is that the Romney campaign thinks it needs a clear theory of the race that explains why he isn’t winning yet.