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Where Obama's Lead Came From

Looking at the factors creating President Obama's lead in the polls - specifically the ones outside of his control.

            In two days, the millions who volunteered for a campaign will be very happy. It is most likely that those millions will be from the Barack Obama campaign. Rather than add my voice to a cacophony of those either confidently predicting an Obama victory or making the case that Romney still has a chance. it would be more helpful to analyze how the President obtained the upper hand. Obama is an incumbent presiding over the worst economy in decades and his name is attached to the Affordable Care Act, which remains unpopular among most Americans. How did Obama maintain a lead throughout virtually all of the campaign? The answer lies in factors that were entirely out of his control. While we idealize campaigns as consisting of both candidates taking the best strategically moves, and thus the race coming down to who had more resources and a better sell to voters, the election this year was shaped by factors entirely unrelated to the political ideologies or charisma of the two candidates. Barack Obama will win because the Republican Party was forced into a politically untenable position that only became worse when Romney selected Paul Ryan.

 

            Firstly, Mitt Romney would be winning right now were he not Mitt Romney. Governor Chris Christie had every opportunity to jump into the race but opted not to do so, of course knowing that Mitt Romney would become the nominee as a result. While there are of course personal factors to why someone may not seek the office of President of the United States – it is a paramount occupation with major stresses that permanently changes those who undertake it, and the process of campaigning for the office involves months of tireless effort and personal attacks for the chance of inheriting massive responsibility – Christie’s clear efforts to establish himself as viable in 2016 through his convention speech – which treated Romney as a sidenote -  shows that he has at least some ambition beyond being the governor of New Jersey, while his praise for Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy not only hurt Romney’s chances but also will help Christie’s aspirations later on by showing the governor as a bipartisan realist unbound by politics – a clever and warmer interpretation of his 2012 image as crass and impolite. Christie stepped out of 2012 because he would be facing the Obama record and the Obama candidacy. In 2016 he would face the Obama record  - which would be just as easily transplanted onto a Democrat as Bush’s record was onto McCain – but the candidacy of the 2016 nominee, who will likely be coming from relative obscurity.  Other likely-worse-than-Christie-but-possibly-still-better-than-Romney candidates could have emerged such as Marco Rubio. Sarah Palin could have easily beaten Romney but held back, likely out of an understanding that she would lose the general election for sure. Tim Pawlenty could have stayed in the race instead of leaving after only the Iowa Straw Poll. Instead Barack Obama was lucky in that every candidate who could have been superior to Romney opted not to run, and thus the President faced a candidate with substantial baggage from his days as governor and a tendency to alienate the electorate through misstatements and position reversals.  

 

            Obama also got lucky in that the 2012 primary season lasted as long as it did. In 2008 the Obama-Hillary campaign, as vicious as it was between the two candidates, worked in supplying much of the energy that Obama took to the general election. The 2012 primary season only wasted the resources of Mitt Romney, tarnished the image of the Republican party, and turned the base against him in a way that forced the governor to emphasize his conservatism in a way that hurt him among moderates and independents. The race was kept alive not out of anything of Obama’s doing, but out of the media need to create a horse race out of what was really a guaranteed Romney victory from the beginning. Had Governor Romney been able to use the time and money wasted during the primary to establish himself to independents and improve his ground game in battleground states, he may have had the upper hand today. Instead Romney was forced into using up campaign resources Obama could hold on to for the general election, which thus began tilted in Obama’s favor.

 

Another means by which President Obama got lucky was in the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as the Vice Presidential nominee. Romney went favoring Gov. Chris Christie to Rep. Ryan over the two-week period beginning with the governor’s international tour, two weeks defined by a series of flops compromising Romney’s goal of focusing the race on a comparison of his economic plans with Obama’s economic record. Ryan was a good choice in anchoring the campaign to economics with his proposed budge. If the competition between vice presidential nominees was to come down to their personalities, Ryan persona as a number-crunching economics fanatic was easily more helpful to Romney’s goals than Christie’s loud abrasiveness, likely to overshadow Romney himself. However, Romney’s plan for Ryan only worked with the republican base. For the rest of the country Ryan failed to shift the discussion toward Mitt Romney’s economic policies. Instead the representative from Wisconsin saw the race briefly consist of criticism of his own policies as heartless in a way that overshadowed Romney, then adopt a narrative around the time of the conventions of Ryan as a liar – one that only fueled the popular narrative of Romney as a ruthless flip-flopper willing to say anything to win office. Romney should not have picked a vice presidential nominee whose weaknesses in perception – heartlessness and a casual relationship with the truth – were so easily conflated with Romney himself. McCain never adopted the criticisms directed at Sarah Palin, and Obama has not been criticized as a poor communicator on the basis of Joe Biden’s infamous tendency for off-the-cuff statements. Governor Romney would not have inherited the faults of Governor Christie. However, similarities in delivery issues between Governor Romney and Representative Ryan resulted in every Ryan gaffe reflecting on the Romney-Ryan partnership and thus reflecting on Governor Romney. Obama was running against one candidate’s worth of strengths and two candidates’ worth of weaknesses. 

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Rose November 06, 2012 at 02:02 PM
Another insightful post, Alex. You make some great points. Obama does have the distinct advantage of being the incumbent. It's a widely accepted fact that the incumbent in any election does benefit from people's unwillingless to take the perceived risk of changing the status quot, regardless of the candidate's record. In this particular election, the incumbent has a position of enormous advantage, as it has been proven in studies of behavioral economics that people are even less likely to change the status quot in times of uncertainty. The depressed state of the economy, ironically, gives Obama a boost regardless of his record on those issues. You've mentioned a number of other things that work in Obama's favor, and that's gravy for him. And even more gravy on top of the gravy. My theory is that all the time and money that go into running a campaign make applying for the job of president a high stakes gamble. You could be the greatest politician in the world, but you will still be operating under a confluence of factors beyond your control. Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, or any other Republican might be wise to hold back until the odds are better rather than blow millions of dollars and hundreds of man hours (not to mention having their career jump the shark) on an election that will most likely have us just going through the motions of a political process before accepting four more years of the incumbent.

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