Friday, October 12, 2012

The Long and Winding the White House (part 1)

Like many politics watchers here in Canada, I have found my attention being drawn with greater frequency towards the U.S. Presidential election. With a little less than four weeks to go, President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are locked in an extremely close race for the White House.

As we enter the final weeks of the campaign, I wanted to give my take on what I have seen so far and what I will be watching for between now and election day. But before I do, I would strongly encourage those interested in the campaign to check out the following writers/bloggers:

- Nate Silver at the New York Times;

- Dave Weigel at Slate; and

- Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post.

All three are regular posters and twitterers - @fivethirtyeight, @daveweigel, @TheFix - and are definitely worth a look.

Now, in terms of the race we have seen a lot happen in the weeks since the Republican and Democratic conventions (I am not going to delve into the pre-convention campaign or I will be writing all night). Let's try break the race into three phases:  post-conventions; the debates; and home-stretch.

1. Post-Conventions

This year the Republicans held their convention first, followed quite quickly by the Democrats. While the latter is remembered for some excellent oratory (Bill Clinton being the highlight), the former is remembered for Clint Eastwood's conversation with an empty chair.

So we'll chalk that one up to the Democrats, then.

Kidding aside, what the Republicans tried to do was "introduce" Romney to the electorate on their terms. In this regard, they did not succeed. The Democrats had already framed a narrative on Romney as an out-of-touch ally of the super wealthy.  

The Republicans did not do enough to counter this, and instead gave us a convention that featured speeches than ranged from the lacklustre, to the odd/personally self-serving (looking at you Governor Christie from NJ and Senator Rubio of Florida), to the surreal (*sigh* Clint). 

In contrast, the Democrats crafted a convention that energized their base and, particularly through Clinton's speech, set out the broad strokes of the election narrative on which they would campaign. It is a narrative that looks to make the case that while there is still work to do, America is on the right track following such an unprecedented financial and economic crisis.

They focused on the middle class, veterans and seniors, and in so doing established a link between their message and the swing states that will ultimately decide this election (looking at you Ohio, Florida, Virginia). The result was a strong post-convention bounce.

At this point, allow me to borrow from the wonderful world of infomercials...But Wait, There's More!

Shortly after the conventions came the release of the infamous 47% video. I won't go into details, but you can read my earlier post here.

The video release built off of the convention bounce to such an extent that the polls - again, particularly those in the swing states - moved President Obama's numbers up quite significantly. In the days leading up to the first debate, there were many who felt that the outcome of the election was set and that the Romney campaign had dropped the ball.

But politics is a funny thing...

2. The Debates

As of today, we have had two debates: the first of three Presidential debates and the only Vice-Presidential debate. In the run-up to the first Obama-Romney debate we were all told that debates do little to change things; that it would take something quite significant to move numbers that appeared so heavily in favour of Obama.

Of course what no one considered was that Obama would perform so poorly (no errors, but nothing to energize anyone -  he was flat), and that Romney would perform so strongly (engaged, on message, relaxed and clearly enjoying himself).

Of the two, Romney's case for change was widely considered to be more effective than Obama's case for a second term. The immediate polls declared Romney a clear winner, but more importantly the media narrative started to shift.

In the days following the debate we saw what I often consider to be a very chicken-egg reaction playing out. Commentary which described momentum shift in favour of Romney and polls which evidenced this shift. The former was influenced by the latter and vice versa.

The result was a significant tightening of the race, essentially bringing us back to where we were late summer, pre-convention.

Today, we are a day removed from the Biden-Ryan VP debate which most consider a tie. Biden did what he needed to bring back some energy, get the Democrats back on message and do what many hoped Obama would do - attack. Ryan did what he needed, which was look a suitable running mate and up to the job.

In essence what they did was set us all up for Tuesday when the top of the ticket candidates meet again. Cue more late nights for a certain Guy Watching Politics.


Of our three phases (post-conventions, debates and home-stretch), we are part way through the second and are set up for what promises to be a very interesting three and a half weeks. Here are some things I will be looking for:

Momentum is something that is very difficult to grab back, particularly if the media narrative starts to be built around the one who has it. This is where Obama was last week, and he needs to have a much more effective performance on Tuesday if he wants to avoid further slippage.

Importantly, the way in which a candidate tries to seize it back needs to be measured and thought out or it can backfire. The candidate who starts to look or is portrayed as being desperate will lose, so care needs to be put into the arguments, tone, manner, ads - basically everything.

Who's spending where is a great predictor for campaigns. It is an indicator that shows where candidates feel they need to spend. If Obama has to start directing funds to those states which only a few weeks ago seemed solidly blue, that is a problem. If either candidate starts pulling out of states, that also tells you something.

Look at the advertising and the time the candidates spend in: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin. If you are a Democrat, be concerned if you see more of Obama, Biden or Clinton in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Everyone on both sides will be in Ohio. Be sure to say hi.  

Polling, both nationally and at the state-level, will tell us a lot. Now is probably a good time to pay more attention to the state polls. Building on the point above remember that states elect Presidents. This election will come down to a few swing states. Notwithstanding his post-debate challenges, President Obama still has more ways to 270 than Mitt Romney. State polling will tell us more in the coming weeks.

Voter enthusiasm is critical. The ability to engage, rally and mobilize your base is one of the keys to success. When we look at Obama's poor debate, while this may have "moved" some voters towards Romney it also energized/deflated identified Republican/Democrat voters.  

Put another way, the swings we saw post-debate probably had more to do with base-engagement than they did about moving un-decideds. An energized base propelled Obama in 2008. Who will benefit in 2012?

The Economy and that all-important jobs number is critical.  Dropping below 8% was good for Obama.  There is one more report before voting day.  Just sayin'.

Wild Cards such as Libya, voter suppression tactics, Super PAC spending, the EU, Iran - any and all of this could conspire to knock the wind out of either candidate's campaign.


I would make one last point on the polls and where things are today. Viewed through the lens of the last 2-3 weeks, the Democrats are rightly disappointed and dispirited. They were soaring post-convention/47 per cent video, and are now engaged in a very close race.

The thing is, given the economy and the divisive views on health care and the deficit, if you offered a Democrat in January or June the kind of numbers they have now (nationally and in swing states) as we head into the final weeks, my gut tells me they would have bitten your hand off.


The race to the White House takes a candidate down a long and winding road.  With over three weeks to go, there are more twists and turns ahead. Let's watch...

*part two to follow post-debate - follow me on Twitter @PoliticWatcher for live commentary on the debate


  1. Obama has this , always had it. Romney is not electable.

    The Republican Party is deeply divided and the ones that have a shot weren't going to take their chances with Obama.

    Obama is a good guy, good heart but he is one terrible President, Holy Smokes! Just as bad as Bush, it's quite shocking, I didn't think he could be that bad. Ezra Levant made a good point, of course overblown Ezra's style but Obama likes to socialize, thinks because he understands issues doesn't have to prepare himself, au contraire the greatest leaders of all times are workaholics and book worms. What a shame that he has chosen not to pay the well deserved respect that his position deserves. You could see the difference between Bill Clinton and him (fair to say that Clinton is passionate about politics, America and people, he is a natural born diplomat) Obama has disappointed me more than any other leader, I really thought he could be different but onece again what's Democracy and the will of people when we have Political Marketing, right?!

  2. Thanks for your comment and continued reading! I agree that Obama is a more dispassionate politician than Clinton, and as such can come across as someone with whom it is more difficult to make a connection.

    Personally, I think they handled the debate too cautiously. Things were going so well and debates typically do not change things. They played it safe and were caught flat.

    In terms of being disappointed by Obama, I do believe people need to look at not just what he had waiting for him when he took office, but also the challenge he had from 2010-2012 governing with a republican opposition that wanted to simply halt progress.


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