“The basic contours of the race have not changed since January or since Romney got the nomination,” said Doug Sosnik, a veteran Democratic strategist. “This has pretty much held true no matter how well or poorly each campaign has performed.”
Sosnik is right. Both candidates have made flubs — President Obama’s clumsily worded “you didn’t build that” line, Romney’s ongoing struggles with how to talk (or not to talk) about his wealth — that have been seized on by the opposite side as game-changers (except that they weren’t). Both candidates have had good months (Obama’s first few months of this year, Romney’s April and May) and bad ones (Obama’s June, Romney’s July).
And yet, nothing has really changed. The economy is, by far, the campaign’s dominant issue, and on that front Obama has struggled to convince a majority of voters that he has the right plan for the future.
Just 44 percent of registered voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted earlier this month approved of the job the president was doing on the economy, while 54 percent disapproved. Even more troubling for the incumbent was that 41 percent of those tested “strongly” disapproved of Obama’s economic performance, while just 21 percent “strongly” approved — an enthusiasm gap of major proportions.
And there’s mounting evidence that people expect Obama to do something about the financial state of the country. A New York Times-CBS News poll this month showed that a majority of voters believe the president can do “a lot” about the economy, a double-digit jump from last fall.
Based on that dynamic, you might assume that Mitt Romney would be in the pole position to upset the incumbent. And yet, polling suggests the race is narrow nationally and that Obama has the slightest of edges over the Republican in the eight (or so) battleground states.
The “why” behind that reality is complicated but due in large part to the former Massachusetts governor’s continued cautious approach — comfortable with playing it safe under the belief that if he makes no colossal mistakes, Obama can’t be reelected in this sort of electoral environment.
“Governor Romney is in the velodrome, drafting directly behind President Obama quite close to the lead despite a very rocky set of preliminary races,” said Andy Stern, the former president of the Service Employees International Union. “He keeps trying to attack the lead based on the president’s own performance but has not yet had the courage to break loose and go for the gold.”
Ed Rollins, who managed the presidential campaign of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), agreed that “Romney has to lay down some substance” to win.
But other Republican strategists insist that Romney is where he needs to be as the summer turns to fall and voters who remain undecided start focusing on the race.
“Governor Romney has withstood all that the Obama campaign has thrown at him and has actually improved his standing during that time,” said Mike DuHaime, who managed former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential bid. “Republicans are very pleased right now because our nominee is all but certain to enter the post-Labor Day phase of the campaign with more money and close or tied in every key battleground against an incumbent that many predicted [was] unbeatable.”
(DuHaime is right on the money about, well, the money. At the end of June, Romney and the Republican National Committee boasted $170 million left to spend on the race, while Obama and the Democratic National Committee showed $144 million in their combined war chest.)
What do the next 99 days hold, then? Almost certainly what the last 99 days — and the 99 days before that — have. Obama’s fate will be tied closely to the public perception of the economy, even as his campaign tries to disqualify Romney. Romney will continue to present himself as the alternative to the current occupant of the White House, doing just enough to preserve his credibility and viability in that role.
“The big question is how the positioning will evolve for each campaign,” said Democratic strategist Phil Singer. “Will Obama add a more positive streak? Will Romney flesh out his economic argument beyond simply calling the president’s record bad?”
Given how polarized the electorate already is, even slight strategic victories for Obama or Romney as they push their competing — and deeply entrenched — narratives could wind up being the difference between winning and losing.
“Make no mistakes,” Rollins warned. “The last mistake might lose it.”