Today on Fox News Sunday, Bill Kristol criticized the GOP convention for failing to offer an affirmative case for what Mitt Romney would do as president. Note Kristol’s description of the Romney campaign’s theory of the race, as described to him by senior Romney advisers (Think Progress has the video):
“I thought that they should do a more forward looking emphasis on the next four years. They thought they’re comfortable with asking voters to pass judgement on the last four years and... just reassuring people about Mitt Romney.
“You talk to the top Romney strategists, they use that word an awful lot. We have to reassure voters about Mitt Romney. He doesn’t hate women, he’s a likable guy. He’s a generous guy. The Republican Party is diverse. That’s enough, plus the case against Obama. That’s their theory of the race and they had a convention that fit with their theory of the race...I’m more inclined to this other belief, that you need to actually convince voters by making a positive case for the Romney-Ryan ticket... “
What accounts for the Romney campaign’s belief that “reassuring” voters about Romney, combined with making a case against Obama, will be enough to win, even without what Kristol calls a convincing enough positive case for the Romney-Ryan alternative?
I strongly suspect it’s because Romney and his advisers have over-estimated their ability to persuade swing voters that the Obama presidency is a total failure, and think the only reasons they are reluctant to vote Obama out are emotional and symbolic — they like Obama, they think he tried hard, they don’t want a transformative and historic presidency to come to an ignominious end, etc. So Romney will win if he persuades voters he’s not the rapacious corporate raider and extremist on women’s issues Dems have painted him as, and patiently explains to them that they can end the Obama presidency and feel okay about it — it’s not their fault; it’s Obama’s fault for failing them.
I’m going to try to make this case one more time, because I haven’t been clear enough in previous posts.
Despite the Romney campaign's assumptions, these voters may be proving unexpectedly resistant to the conclusion that the Obama presidency amounts to an “extraordinary record of failure,” as Romney put it recently. It’s true that majorities disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. But disapproval can mean different things. A disapproving voter may be disappointed in the slow pace of the recovery, but may also have decided that the crisis was so severe — and the resulting problems run so deep — that Obama could not have done much to make the country recover faster.
This came up again and again in interviews with swing voters done by Ron Brownstein and yours truly. And it would explain why more Americans consistently hold Bush responsible for the current economy.
A voter who sees things this way may not be as easily seduced into dropping Obama in favor of a generic alternative — or into believing Romney has the magic touch that will prompt the recovery to suddenly roar forward — as the Romney campaign thinks he or she will. Such a voter may be open to Obama’s argument that in spite of dissatisfaction with the sluggish recovery, he is slowly turning things around, and his long term approach is still more likely than Romney’s approach (which sounds like Bush economics, something voters don’t remember too fondly) to create a foundation for a lasting recovery. A voter who has concluded Obama has failed completely would be less open to that argument, obviously.
Failure to appreciate this nuance may lead the Romney campaign to underestimate its need to make a stronger affirmative case for why his approach would deliver what he says it would.
Perhaps Romney will prove right in his theory of the race. It remains a toss up, and an economic downturn could tip it his way. But if Romney does lose, failure to appreciate the true nature of swing voters’ perceptions of the economy and of the Obama presidency may ultimately be seen as the reason why.