In November 2011, former Democratic pollsters — and current gadflies — Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell made a much-discussed argument in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The miserable state of the economy, they claimed, restricted the options for President Obama’s reelection strategy. He could still win. “But the kind of campaign required for the president’s political survival,” they said, “would make it almost impossible for him to govern — not only during the campaign, but throughout a second term. Put simply, it seems that the White House has concluded that if the president cannot run on his record, he will need to wage the most negative campaign in history to stand any chance.”
Schoen and Caddell added a bit of street theater to their political analysis: Obama should step aside to allow Hillary Clinton to run. The left heaped scorn. The argument was “bilge” and “fantasy.” Schoen and Caddell were “con artists” and “losers.”
Except that the 2012 presidential campaign has proceeded much as they predicted. Both parties’ campaigns have been largely conducted according to their theory.
The shape of the race was set in early summer. In April, May and June, job creation dipped well below 100,000 — some of the worst economic news since the worst days of the Great Recession. Public approval for Obama’s handling of the economy dropped. Political scientists often argue that public impressions about the state of the economy get locked in during the summer before a presidential election. In the doldrums of 2012, Americans determined they wanted economic change — though they were not yet convinced that Mitt Romney could deliver it.
The Obama campaign fully internalized this political reality. It could not talk of “morning in America” during a continuing economic twilight. In a remarkable New York magazine article by John Heilemann this May, senior Obama aides frankly described the task ahead — delegitimizing Romney. He would be attacked as a vulture capitalist, a cultural revanchist, a social Darwinist. “For anyone still starry-eyed about Obama,” said Heilemann, “the months ahead will provide a bracing revelation about what he truly is: not a savior, not a saint, not a man above the fray, but a brass-knuckled, pipe-hitting, red-in-tooth-and-claw brawler.”
“Bracing” does not fully capture it. Throughout the summer, the Obama campaign and its allies accused Romney of not paying taxes, of possibly committing a felony, of personally outsourcing jobs to China and India, of stashing money in the Cayman Islands, of bearing responsibility for a woman’s death from cancer. The attempt to discredit Romney had an added political benefit. A presidential campaign consumed by the jabs and parries of the 24-hour news cycle was less focused on larger matters such as the economy.
During this period, the Romney campaign was also operating from the Schoen-Caddell script. Instead of making bold strategic moves or conducting unexpected outreach, it was single-minded in its focus on economic conditions — without much apparent effect.
For almost four weeks — from the end of the Democratic convention to the first presidential debate — the Obama strategy seemed to be prevailing. The president rose above 50 percent in the polls. Many in the media accepted the narrative of Obama’s inevitability. Romney’s campaign, in turn, was criticized as the worst in history.
Then came the Denver debate, remarkable both for the scale of its impact and the ease — even simplicity — of Romney’s accomplishment. Obama did not commit any serious gaffes. Romney did not display an innovative strategy or deliver any crushing, historically memorable one-liners. He sounded reasonable, he forcefully pressed his economic case and he handily cleared the hurdle of acceptability. It was enough to end the four-week aberration and return the race to a competitive state.
Since the summer, both campaigns have been the flip sides of the same analysis: For Obama, avoid talking about the performance of the economy and destroy Romney’s credibility. For Romney, talk about the economy and establish that he is not a monster. Neither approach will be remembered for its creativity. There is no reason that Obama could not have added a more compelling second-term agenda. And Romney may come to regret his lack of effective outreach. Demography is a harsh, inexorable opponent. On the morning after Romney’s victory celebration — if there is one — Republicans will wake with a Hispanic hangover.
An Obama win — with an assist by Ohio — would vindicate the president’s campaign game plan. But the Schoen-Caddell prediction still holds: Obama will have left the nation divided, disillusioned and less governable.