The narratives are flying at warp speed in the presidential election. Private equity. Public equity. Bain. Solyndra. President Obama undercut by Newark Mayor Cory Booker and ex-governor Ed Rendell. Mitt Romney drowned out by The Donald. What’s a person to think?
The general election is only a few weeks old. What has happened in those weeks is not insignificant, because of what they say about the directions the two campaigns are heading and the arguments they want to make, rather than because one candidate or the other has seized the temporary advantage.
What’s important to remember is that there are two audiences for political news. One is the community of campaign workers, strategists, news organizations and highly interested citizens who are hanging on every development. They are keeping score on a minute-by-minute basis — and sometimes trying to extrapolate to November from episodes that will soon be forgotten.
The other is the far bigger and more important audience of Americans who aren’t paying close attention and haven’t paid close attention all year, despite one of the most interesting and unpredictable Republican nomination battles in a long time. These voters may have formed opinions about the president, but they know little about Romney.
Of the two audiences, both campaigns are far more focused on the latter than the former. The political community may set the narrative of the moment, but the voters who will be checking in over the summer are the ones who will determine who sits in the Oval Office next Jan. 20. And it is clear now just what each side wants those voters to believe.
Both campaigns have had to defend their conduct and effectiveness in these opening weeks. Obama’s campaign twice has come in for criticism because unexpected events disrupted otherwise carefully planned messages.
The day after Obama formally launched his campaign with a pair of rallies a month ago, Vice President Biden forced the conversation onto the topic of same-sex marriage. That settled down by the end of that week but only after Obama was forced to state publicly — and not on his own timetable — that he too supported same-sex marriages.
That episode coincided with consternation over the Obama campaign’s attack on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. Booker, Rendell and others decried the negative tone and, as they saw it, unfair criticism of role of private equity in the economy. The Obama campaign did not retreat. “Elites view this as gratuitous, but it’s kind of fundamental,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist.
Obama’s attacks on Romney and Bain are the opening phase of what will probably be a months-long assault aimed at undermining Romney as an acceptable alternative to the president. The president says the attacks are not an attempt to demonize private equity but only to say that Romney’s experience in private business, which has been his calling card as a candidate, doesn’t in any serious way qualify him to be president.
On Thursday, Obama advisers began a fresh attack on Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. They are quick to note that Romney is not running as an ex-governor, a job more closely associated with the role of president, but as an ex-businessman.
There are theories about why he’s taken that course. One is that his major accomplishment as governor, enactment of a health care law that bears strong resemblance to the law signed by the president in 2010, is deeply unpopular with Republicans. Another is that his record is mediocre at best.
The Obama team has tested reactions to the Massachusetts record and believes two things: Voters know almost nothing about what Romney did as governor and when they learn what the Obama team wants to tell them about it, they are not impressed, to put it benignly. The goal, as with the attack on Bain, is to undermine Romney’s credibility as a potential president.
Obama advisers have taken considerable flak for the Bain attacks but point out that they have spent very little money to force what has become a national conversation about Romney’s business experience. And, they say, they will put additional money behind the attacks.
“We know it resonates,” said another top Obama adviser, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly about strategy. “The campaign wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t. It’s not like they took a flier on it.”
Romney advisers expressed surprise early Thursday over the latest attacks from the Obama campaign. One top Romney adviser called the shift the latest evidence of a “haphazard” message strategy that is missing the mark by a wide margin.
Romney’s week — a moment finally to celebrate clinching the GOP nomination after what became a grinding primary experience — has been marred by Donald Trump’s attention-grabbing comments on the long-settled issue of whether Obama was born in the United States. The Republican presidential candidate did not want to offend the host of a multimillion-dollar fundraiser in Las Vegas, and so tried to step gingerly around the controversy without condemning Trump, but still got caught in the fallout.
Even many Republicans winced over Trump’s behavior, but some of them believe that this will pass without doing serious damage to Romney. GOP strategists see the Romney campaign rightly focused on fending off attacks against Bain by going after the Obama administration’s hefty investment into the now bankrupt solar company Solyndra. At the least, they think it muddies the debate over private equity and sets up the argument over fixing the economy as government versus the private sector.
Romney has but one basic strategy, which is to persuade voters that Obama doesn’t have what it takes to get the economy moving again. They know that Obama is not disliked by many of the swing voters who will decide the election; some of those voters no doubt supported Obama in 2008.
With videos, television ads and the candidate’s and surrogates’ words, the Romney campaign is trying to say that the suffering continues, the president had his chance and the economy won’t get significantly better in the next four years without a new president.
Current polls show the race as close. Both sides expect them to remain that way. The electoral map still looks a little easier for Obama than Romney, but not comfortably so. There will be many distractions, some of them real and others manufactured, in the coming months. But the two campaigns believe most of those distractions will prove to be noise in the system. Meanwhile, they have game plans, and they are starting to execute them.