Presidential race becomes a question of nature vs. nurture

Chris Cillizza
Reporter August 5, 2012

Mitt Romney should win the presidential election this November.

While that may seem, on its face, like a somewhat controversial idea, consider the following:

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House. View Archive

●The unemployment rate has been over 8 percent for 42 straight months, a streak unparalleled in American history. No post-World War II president has ever been reelected with unemployment over 7.2 percent — meaning that if President Obama wins, he will be making history.

●Pessimism abounds. In a July Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than six in 10 people said the country was headed in the wrong direction. A similar six in 10 said the economy was getting worse, not better, in Gallup polling last week.

●Majorities disapprove of how Obama has handled the economy, which is, without question, the central issue of the election. In that July Post-ABC poll, 44 percent approved of how Obama was dealing with the economy, while 54 percent disapproved. More problematic for the incumbent: Forty-one percent strongly disapproved of the job he is doing on the economy, while only 21 percent strongly approved.

●Obama has spent more than $400 million, according to a New York Times analysis, on his reelection campaign but almost certainly will be outspent — and probably heavily outspent — by the former Massachusetts governor and his allies in the 92 days between now and the Nov. 6 election.

And yet, despite all of those factors clearly working against him, Obama is either statistically tied or ahead in key swing-state polling — suggesting that writing his political obituary today is decidedly premature.

So, what gives? Call it the political equivalent of the nature-vs.-nurture debate. Put more simply: The backdrop on which the campaign is fought matters (nature), but so, too, does the kind of race each candidate runs (nurture).

At the moment, Obama is winning the nurture side of the equation — thanks to a series of tactical victories that have put Romney and his team on its heels. From the debate over when Romney totally cut ties to Bain Capital to the (ongoing) debate over whether he should release more of his tax returns to the negative press surrounding Romney’s trip to Britain, Israel and Poland last week, the narrative of the campaign over the past month has worked heavily in Obama’s favor.

Add to that Obama’s ad onslaught against Romney — has anyone in a swing state by now not heard the former governor awkwardly singing “America the Beautiful”? — and it’s clear that the incumbent has been winning the day-to-day battle.

The question is how much winning the nurture side of the debate actually matters. Republicans are quick to note that for much of August during the 2008 campaign — and even into the two parties’ national conventions — their side was winning the tactical fight, thanks in large part to the famous/infamous ad run by Sen. John McCain that labeled Obama an international celebrity on par with Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.

Those day-to-day wins didn’t matter once the world economy seized and McCain uttered his “fundamentals of our economy are strong” line. Political nature took over, pushing Obama to a historic victory that included wins in longtime Republican strongholds such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

Romney strategists and allies insist that 2012 is another year when political nature will win out over political nurture. (Although it’s worth noting that they would less readily concede that they are losing the day-to-day campaign to Obama.) For all of the Obama team’s attempts to turn this election into a devil-you-know-vs.-devil-you-don’t choice, the Romney team argues it will ultimately fail because voters see this election as about one thing and only one thing: Obama’s ability (or inability) to improve the economy.

Who’s right? The next six weeks will be a telling indicator.

If Obama and the nurture side of the argument are right, the body blows the president’s campaign team has been landing on Romney for the last two months will start to pay political dividends as the former governor’s image is tarnished beyond repair for undecided voters.

If Romney and the nature side are correct, the Republican will begin to pull into the lead as undecided voters, who care only about Obama’s performance on the economy, look at the macro political picture and conclude it’s time for someone new.

Of course, things can change. Romney can turn the tide in the tactical end of the campaign, beginning to win the daily back-and-forth of the race. Or Obama can hope that the July job creation numbers are a leading indicator of an economic improvement that will allow him to argue that his policies are starting to work.

For now, though, it’s Romney’s nature argument vs. Obama’s nurture argument.

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