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August 21, 2012 / Sandy Asher

IT’S NOT JUST THE ECONOMY, STUPID, or Why I Predict Romney Won’t Win

On the eve of the Republican Party’s convention, we interrupt the monthly posts of this blog to bring you a special bulletin:  my educated guess as to the outcome of November’s election.  Together, we will discover whether discerning the patterns of history allows us a betting advantage on the short-term future.  I offer this prediction at my own risk and in spite of my earlier disdain for what I called the worst title of a book on political prophecy ever:  Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man:  Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win, published before the election of 2008. 

Political strategist James Carville said of the 1992 presidential contest, “It’s the economy, stupid,” when he advised Democrats to keep harping on that issue to assure victory. Bill Clinton supposedly won because he followed the advice, which has also become Governor Romney’s calling card for his 2012 run at the presidency. Clinton’s staying on message allowed him to define his opponent, George H.W. Bush, as seriously out of touch with the average American’s bad economic situation. 

More decisive in President George H.W. Bush’s loss, however, was the entry into the fray of Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, who took 19.1% of the vote in an election where Clinton’s popular vote margin was only 43% to 37%.  (Seventy percent of Perot backers had supported Bush in 1988.)

With the exception of the Great Depression election of 1932, the economy alone has never determined a presidential outcome. When it did play an important role — in the presidential elections between 1884 and 1892 — it still was not decisive in explaining the end results.

The tariff question of that time symbolized the two parties’ fundamental differences about the country’s future. Republicans preferred high tariffs to keep out cheaper goods manufactured abroad, federal encouragement of internal improvements, and retention of the gold standard.  Democrats, then regarded as the party of individual liberties, opted for limited federal government and localism, low tariffs, states rights, and free silver. How things have changed!

The Democrats’ candidate, Grover Cleveland, won in 1884, but not because of his economic platform. The key to his victory was attacking the Republicans for making government a tool for both partisan and personal gain. Likewise, Republican Benjamin Harrison owed his 1888 win less to his support for higher tariffs than to Cleveland’s inept campaign and a divided Democratic party.

On Ronald Reagan’s watch, unemployment hit 9.7% in 1982, and averaged 7.5% over the next two years. Yet he trounced Walter Mondale in 1984 despite also having raised corporate, excise and income taxes. 

It’s not just the economy, stupid!

Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s strategy of keeping the moribund economy center stage has been somewhat effective. Despite President Obama’s attacks on Romney’s business record at Bain Capital and refusal to commit to releasing more than two years of tax results to date, a late July USA Today Gallup Poll found that, by 63% to 29%, those surveyed believed Romney would make better decisions than Obama about handling the American economy over the next four years.

This result is consistent with other polls that give Romney higher marks than the President on dealing with economic issues. Add to Obama’s difficulties the fact that no candidate since the Great Depression has won the presidency when the unemployment rate was higher than 7.8%; as I write this, it stands at 8.3%.

Is then the non-reelection of Obama a given? Absolutely not! The political wisdom and data cited above inflate Romney’s strengths, and slight those of the President. No one seriously thinks Romney’s higher favorability rating of 63% to 29% will be replicated in the final popular vote outcome.

Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan will gain him traction with those who questioned his conservative credentials. The trade-off?  He will now have to run on Ryan’s very controversial platform on how to reduce the deficit by cutting taxes, mostly for the wealthy, and entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid for all but those presently enrolled. The margin of vote of the over 65 crowd, which usually favors Republicans, is likely to shrink. Tougher voter identification standards promoted by Republicans may reduce his disadvantage somewhat.

The choice of Ryan ends any chance of Romney running as a “compassionate conservative” as did George W. Bush in 2000.  (Bush’s victory ultimately rested not on the economy but on a Supreme Court decision about the counting of Florida ballots.)

Like his recent Republican predecessors, Romney will have to win without majority support from women, minority groups that include African-Americans, Latinos, and Jews, and immigrants.  These voters come to the polls with far more issues in mind than the economy, from women’s reproductive rights to the fate of illegal aliens and their American born children.

Obama has his own hills to climb, first and foremost, fairly or unfairly, being a very bad economy. His redistributionist policies – a Democratic Party staple – remains a turn-off  for white rural and working class voters who do not want the nation to devote itself primarily to “victim care.”  Like the Grand Old Party, they want cheaters and slackers punished, and citizens rewarded in proportion to their success.

 There is also the question of how many who enthusiastically supported Obama in 2008 will allow their disillusionment with his performance in office – backing down on health care reform, and not closing Guantanomo, for instance – to not vote? 

In Obama’s favor, the same Gallup Poll cited above found the President with a double digit lead for better understanding the problems Americans face in their daily lives, and an eight point margin for honesty and trustworthiness. Most significantly, he out-polled Romney by more than 2-1 in likeability.

Obama has won back some unhappy Democrats by issuing executive orders and supportive statements from the “bully pulpit,” thereby halting  enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act, approving gay marriage, and allowing illegal immigrants age 16 and under who were born in the USA to stay here and obtain a work permit if they meet certain standards. His push for capping student loan payments and preventing a leap in interest rates might get more of these usually reluctant voters to the polls. 

Moreover, whatever labels the Romney camp puts on Obama – incompetent, overwhelmed, weak, socialist, Muslim – do not play out  as well as the Democratic counterattack that Romney is a flip flopper, vulture capitalist, and possible tax cheat whose super rich lifestyle has no connection to regular folk.

The main obstacle Romney faces is how to metamorphose from Plastic Man to Embraceable Man, a fellow the average Joe or Jane would invite to share a beer (if he drank). It is telling that testimony for his being a funny guy comes primarily from family insiders — his wife and sons – rather from his own public personna.

The Romney life narrative as portrayed by Democrats in the media  features his tying an Irish setter to the car roof on a family vacation and building elevators for his fleet of Cadillac’s housed at one of his luxurious homes.  Fairly or unfairly, they create a story line of going from dad to riches to vulture capitalism.

Obama’s hiccups are fewer and less damaging. Doing drugs as a young man and not treating his (mostly white) girlfriends nobly doesn’t seriously dent his likeability quotient and leaves untarnished his story line of going from rags to riches to accomplish the American Dream. 

The best chances for Romney to create an open and approachable image will come at the Republican Convention and during the presidential debates. A recent web headline of a major newspaper read, “Romney Campaign Works Feverishly to Project Relaxed Image,” certainly a strange juxtaposition of problem and solution. In any case, everything at the convention from wood finish to podium to high resolution screens will be designed to emphasize the candidate’s warmth and casual confidence.

 The presidential debates offer the final chances to create a down-to-earth, affable Romney avatar. However, even with a “training makeover” by the best consultants it’s difficult to picture Romney enthralling watchers by his spontaneity, infectious or self-deprecating humor, hearty laughter, disarming smile, and display of passion. 

 Clearly Obama has the easier task in the affability wars. He just has to continue to be his public self.

If it sounds as if I’m saying, “It’s the personality, stupid,” I’m not.  Myriad issues always affect the outcome of elections, but perceived personality is a huge factor.  Over roughly 100 years, in my opinion, only one candidate known for blandness has won the presidency.  That was Calvin Coolidge in 1924, under the special circumstances that followed the pervasive corruption of his predecessor in office, Warren Harding.  Of “Silent Cal” the story goes that a wit greeted the news of his death by asking, “How can you tell?” 

Romney’s personality traits more resemble those of two-time governor Thomas Dewey than of Calvin Coolidge: competence, intelligence, stiffness, aloofness.  Harry Truman’s “Give ‘em hell, Harry” role as bantam rooster played well to the masses.  The result was the now-classic morning-after-the-election photo of a triumphant Harry holding the premature newspaper headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Perhaps the strongest card Obama holds in his quest for reelection is his willingness to use Swiftboat attacks, both as initiator and defender, against Republic use of the same tactics. His playing hardball is something new.  In 2004, Democratic White House candidate John Kerry scurried to avoid missiles launched by a Republican group of outsiders attacking his military reputation, the same tactics now being used in recruiting former Navy Seals to denounce Obama’s handling of the mission against Osama bin-Laden. The problem this time is that most Americans know Obama got his man.  Staying on the attack also keeps Romney on the defensive and unable to stick with his message about the bad economy.

Aided by the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, Romney will out-raise and out-spend Obama. Past a certain point, however, additional monies come up against the law of diminishing returns. “Same old, same old” eventually begins to fall on deaf ears. Anyway, Obama will raise enough funds to keep Romney’s financial advantage from being a game changer.

As things now stand in the game – advantage Obama. The strong likelihood is his next serve will be a winner – game, set, and match.

Voter participation is the ultimate arbiter. If both parties get excellent turnouts, the Democrats will win – deservedly or not – as there are many more of them registered to vote than there are Republicans.  So . . . what will happen on election day depends on your showing up at the polls on election day, and also on urging friends to do likewise, working the phones, going door to door, giving cash, taking neighbors to the polls, and fighting to make voting for all qualified Americans as easy as possible. 

 You have my prediction.  Whatever your convictions, vote.

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8 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Fred Bortz / Aug 21 2012 11:37 pm

    Great post, Harvey! The only correction is that “hardy laugh” should be “hearty laugh.”

    Other than that, I hardily agree! 🙂

    • Harvey Asher / Aug 22 2012 1:13 am

      Har-har-hardy-har-har! Good eye, Fred. Correction entered. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Audrey M. Shillington / Aug 21 2012 11:47 pm

    Dr. Asher:
    In the day and age of short sound bites from varying 24-hours news programs, it is nice to read something about the election that is grounded in historical data. This article, as your prior ones, show that the complexities take time to consider and the answers aren’t always easy.

    Best,
    Audrey Mengwasser Shillington

    • Harvey Asher / Aug 22 2012 1:14 am

      Glad to learn that you’re a reader, Audrey. You get me! I appreciate that.

  3. Lynn Hinds / Aug 23 2012 3:42 pm

    Harvey, I too think see echoes of Dewey’s persona in Mr Romney. As you know, Dewey was called the “groom on the wedding cake.” Romney seems to be equally as stiff.

    • Harvey Asher / Aug 25 2012 12:36 am

      Yes, I knew that reference once, Lynn. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Charles Allman / Aug 26 2012 6:20 pm

    As usual, your analysis is comprehensive and insightful. I had not previously considered, and was particularly intrigued, by your comparison of Romney to Dewey in 1948. I personally, very much hope that the comparison holds, and your prediction is proved correct this November. I also loved the reference, to what is one of my favorite Dorothy Parker quips, about Silent Cal.

    • Harvey Asher / Aug 27 2012 1:00 am

      Thanks for the compliment, Charles. I, too, am a great admirer of Dorothy Parker’s acerbic wit.

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