JACK SPENCER: How to tell which side is losing

Obama’s campaign has been attacking Romney, bringing up new issues, trying to rally support from young voters

 

By JACK SPENCER

Guest Columnist

 

At times, just watching how a political race unfolds is enough to reveal almost everything. When campaigns openly tip their hands, you can figure out what’s going on without looking at a poll or listening to news media commentary.

As elections reach the home stretch in October, political observers typically pay attention to which side is attacking and scrambling to introduce new issues into the contest. That’s often a reliable way of determining who is really ahead.

Generally, when a campaign is losing, and time is running out, it starts grasping for anything that might turn the tables.

Now and then this dynamic plays out long before a race reaches its final days. In the spring and early summer of 2006 virtually every expert predicted the Republicans would keep control of the Michigan House. Even the Democrats admitted this — speaking off the record, of course.

However, in September when the House went into a brief late summer session, it became obvious that something had changed. Several Republicans introduced bills and pressed reporters to give publicity to their new legislation. What’s more, the bills clearly weren’t the result of long-studied policy research. The bills were transparently political and shallow.

This rush to do something new and different led to embarrassing moments. Some of the bill sponsors couldn’t even explain their new legislation when called upon to do so.

Anyone who was paying attention could guess what had happened. The Republicans had been out campaigning and the results had been dim. Their inner polling must have shown that they were in trouble. Sure enough, that November the House Democrats were swept into power. Democratic advisers later complained that — had they realized sooner how much things were tipping in their favor — they could have won even more House seats.

Fast forward to May 2012. Simply put: President Barack Obama’s campaign looks desperate. Polling shows Obama’s GOP opponent Mitt Romney ahead by percentages beyond the margins of error. The latest polls even show Romney cracking 50 percent.

But the point is that we don’t need the polls to tell us the story. All we need is to pay attention to what the Obama campaign has been doing.

Presidents running for reelection usually delay jumping into campaign mode. They use the power and prestige of their office and stay on the job. The phrase is to “look presidential.” But Obama is out campaigning and has been for weeks. It’s really not very difficult to guess why.

Obama’s campaign, and its minions, have been attacking Romney personally. These are the sort of attacks usually reserved for the final weeks of an election; and only used if your side is losing.

Successful campaigns are supposed to start out positive, engage and attack in the middle weeks of the electioneering, and then end on a positive note. In contrast, the Obama forces have started out very negative and seem to be grasping to come up with new issues. It’s as if they were throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping a few strands will stick.

The latest attack is about an incident that took place when Romney was in school back in 1965. This isn’t a low blow; it’s a wild flailing swing as likely to throw the punchers’ arm out of joint as it is to hit the target. Again, this isn’t the sort of attack confident campaigns need to make.

Meanwhile, Obama has come out with a statement that he supports gay marriage. Forget the issue, the political question is: Why make the announcement?

The latest Gallup poll shows that 60 percent of Americans say Obama’s announcement won’t effect their vote. Of the rest, 26 percent say it makes them less likely to vote for him. Only 13 percent said it would make them more likely to vote for him. And this was a poll of “Americans.” Chances are that a poll of “likely voters” would show the announcement helping Obama’s re-election effort even less.

Make no mistake, this polling didn’t surprise the Obama campaign. They had to expect it. So again, the political question: why did Obama make the announcement? The answer is that it’s part of an effort to shore up support from factions in his left-wing base — most likely some with a lot of money to potentially contribute. This base is made up of groups he should have already had in his hip pocket, but apparently he doesn’t.

Obama and Washington Democrats also are trying to make an issue of the interest rate charged on student loans, which is scheduled to double soon. It’s a tough argument to make since Romney and the Republicans arguably are less responsible for the increase than the Democrats are.

Why use this contorted issue? The answer is that there must be polling showing that young voters aren’t likely to turn out in big numbers for Obama the way they did in 2008. So, the Obama campaign is trying to use the student loan issue to give them a reason to show up on Election Day.

Then there’s the whole “insurance must cover contraceptives” issue. Why this issue? Same answer: To try and shore up support from certain factions in, what should be, his natural political base.

Some might ask, don’t all candidates start by trying to shore up support from their political bases?

That’s true, but not by aiming at various factions in the manner that Obama has been using. The incumbent shouldn’t need to be adding new issues to the race on an almost daily basis — usually that’s the challenger’s role.

It seems likely that Obama’s campaign has told him he has to shore up support from various factions of his base before Memorial Day. Voters traditionally tune out in the summer months. If Obama is still trying to shore up support from these factions in September, he’ll really be bucking the odds.

Of course Obama’s real problem is that he can’t let the election be a referendum on his job performance. If there ever was a mild U.S. economic recovery earlier this year, it was on crutches. Now we see, with the latest economic news, that it could be headed for a relapse.

Worse still, there’s not much reason to expect the economy to pick up soon. In fact, it’s beginning to look like a worldwide economic slump may be in the offing. That would at least keep gas prices relatively low for a while but, overall, it won’t help Obama — especially if it starts affecting the stock market.

With Election Day still six months away, anything could happen. It would be too early to bet the farm on Obama losing. But, at this stage of the election, you don’t need to see the polls to guess which campaign is battling from behind.

 

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MCPP provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center.

Leave a Reply