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Posted at 09:19 AM ET, 08/23/2012

The Morning Plum: The Obama campaign’s theory of the presidential race

Should President Obama be trying to persuade voters that the economy is recovering?

Some Democratic strategists think that could jar against public perceptions that things aren’t really getting better. They believe voters don’t want to hear Obama telling them things are improving. And yet, you’d think that it’s imperative that Obama rebut Mitt Romney’s charge that he’s failed to turn the economy around, that Obama has had his four years, that he hasn’t shown he has the answer to people’s problems, and that Romney does have the answer to them. How can Obama do that without doubling down on the claim that things really are getting better for people?

The Obama campaign is out with a new ad in seven swing states featuring Bill Clinton that sheds some light on this difficulty:

What we’re seeing here, I believe, is the beginning of the Obama campaign’s pivot to a more concerted effort to draw a contrast between what an Obama second term would look like and what a Romney presidency would look like. And yet, paradoxically, Clinton needs to reach into the distant past to draw this contrast.

In the spot, Clinton focuses on the future and on the past before Obama was president. The contrast it draws is between Clinton and Obama’s approach on the one hand and Bush’s and Romney’s approach on the other. As Steve Kornacki notes, the ad plays the Bush card without saying his name. The ad also draws this contrast without discussing what has happened under Obama. Clinton carefully says Obama has “a plan” and that we “need to keep going with his plan.” This stops just short of saying the recovery is underway, but it hints that we’re moving foward and promises recovery in the future, just as happened under Clinton.

In other words, the ad rebuts one key part of Romney’s argument (Obama doesn’t have the answer; I do) by reframing this as a choice between the Clinton and Bush approach. But it doesn’t directly take on the other part of Romney’s argument (you have already shown your approach has failed).

This is rooted, I believe, in a reading of the electorate by the Obama campaign that has gone underappreciated. The Obama camp makes a distinction between whether voters think Obama has failed, and whether they are merely disappointed that he hasn’t lived up to expectations, but find that understandable given the situation he inherited. This is a crucial difference that is central to understanding this race, one that turned up in my conversations with undecided voters in Colorado.

The Obama camp believes that the latter description is a more accurate reading of the electorate’s verdict. This allows them to make the case in the ad above — that Romney doesn’t have the answer. The gamble is that even if things are bad, Obama’s approach has not been discredited; voters won’t see this election as a decision to end a presidency that has failed; they will take a long view of the situation and see the election as a choice between two parties with differing views on a range of issues, between two overall visions of the future, and ultimately, between two men. Given the tattered shape of the GOP brand, voter willingness to blame Bush more than Obama for the current state of things, and Romney’s negatives, the Obama camp believes this framing will play in their favor.

Romney and his aides have different theory of the race: Voters are willing to accept Romney’s harsher assessment — that Obama’s presidency is “an extraordinary record of failure,” as Romney put it recently. Who has the more accurate reading of voter perceptions of the economy and of the Obama presidency?

* Obama ahead in key states, but race is tightening: The new batch of New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac polls is out, and it finds Obama leading in Ohio (50-44) and by less in Florida (49-46) while the race has tightened in Wisconsin (49-47).

A key dynamic of this race is on display: Obama holds a sizable edge over Romney on favorability in all three states, with Obama at or above 50 percent and Romney at 39 in Ohio, 44 in Wisconsin and 45 in Florida. Meanwhile, Obama and Romney are tied on the economy in Ohio; Romney holds a slight lead in Florida on the issue (and a bigger one in Wisconsin). Obama’s best hope may be to fight Romney to a draw on the economy and win on personal attributes, entitlements and other issues.

* Obama holds advantage on Medicare: The poll finds that big majorities favor keeping Medicare as it is, rather than changing it to a system in which government would provide seniors with a fixed amount for buying insurance, in Florida (62-28), Ohio (64-27), and Wisconsin (59-32). This is a stark finding: Voters want Medicare’s core mission to remain unchanged, period, full stop.

And that’s not all: Obama holds sizable leads on who would do a better job on Medicare in Florida (50-42), Ohio (51-41), and Wisconsin (51-42). Oddly enough, despite the unpopularity of Obamacare, Obama holds a sizable edge on health care in all three states.

* Paul Ryan remains unknown: Large numbers in Florida (36) and in Ohio (40) say they haven’t heard enough about Ryan to form an opinion. So Dems will need to tie Ryan’s own actual views to him more effectively in order to define him, particularly since Romney and Ryan are working overtime to obscure the true nature of their actual differences with Obama on multiple issues.

* Romney gaining slightly in swing states: Aaron Blake has a comprehensive look at all the recent swing state polling, which does suggest Romney is making slight gains in the states that will decide the election. However, the shifts are within the margin of error, and they are coming at a time when Romney should have enjoyed a bigger bounce from the announcement of Ryan.

* GOP, resigned to Akin, rethinks path to Senate majority: Republicans seem to have decided Todd Akin is staying in the Missouri Senate race, and Caitlin Huey-Burns has an interesting look at the GOP’s rethinking of the Senate map as they try to come up with another route to winning the four seats necessary to take the Upper Chamber.

Akin means more pressure on Republicans to win in Wisconsin and New Mexico. And in Massachusetts, where Scott Brown needs to win over roughly 20 percent of Democrats to prevail — in a blue state in a presidential election year.

* Elizabeth Warren’s challenge: E.J. Dionne gest to the heart of it: Warren has the heft Massachusetts has historically elected in its Senators, but Scott Brown is doing a very good job of persuading voters he’s one of themand — crucially — in achieving separation from the national GOP.

I’d add that Warren has to effectively make a case that even if voters see Brown as likable and independent, what matters more is which party controls the Senate. This can’t only be about persuading voters that Brown is a true Republican in disguise.

* Dems will remain aggressive during GOP convention: Experts weigh in on the Dem plan to mount a full-scale assault on Romney during the Republican convention, a break with tradition that underscores both how high the stakes of this election are and how polarized our politics have become.

* And how Obama views the presidential race shaping up: As expressed by the president at a fundraisner last night:

“I can’t resist a basketball analogy.We are in the fourth quarter. We’re up by a few points but the other side is coming strong and they play a little dirty. We’ve got a few folks on our team in foul trouble. We’ve got a couple of injuries and I believe that they’ve got one last run in them. I’d say there’s about seven minutes to go in the game ... if you’ve got a little bit of a lead and there’s about seven minutes, that’s when you put them away.”

I’d say the Romney campaign has more than “one last run” in them.

What else?

By  |  09:19 AM ET, 08/23/2012

 
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