There’s just one thing for sure this election season, and that is that no one in his or her right mind should be betting on who is going to win the presidential election come Nov. 6, at least until we find out who the Republican nominee is.
Oh, that’s right, we have a name, Mitt Romney. It remains a close game, now well into the third quarter, and each side has encountered challenges no one expected. Each side has had boosts no one expected. And each side has turned the ball over on multiple occasions.
Complicating the outcome’s predictability even more, at least so far, as the game has unfolded the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head time and again.
Consider, for example, the conventional wisdom that a president who has added $6 trillion to the national debt, who faces an unemployment rate of more than 8 percent – where it has been lodged for the past 43 months – and whose job approval rating has labored beneath 50 percent for almost two years would be toast.
And yet, here we are in mid-September, and Barack Obama is leading or tied in every major poll.
Or take the conventional wisdom that major candidates move to the center after they are nominated in a bid to persuade undecided and independent voters. Likewise out the window. Traditionally, mid-September is a time when about 10 to 15 percent of the electorate is still undecided, but this year it’s about 4 to 5 percent.
With so few truly undecided voters – and with new studies showing independents to actually vote reliably one way or the other – the candidates have turned to firing up the base rather than convincing the shrinking middle. The politics of persuasion has given way to the politics of motivation.
Yes, the conventional wisdom is in tatters, and that makes it hard to trust remaining conventional wisdoms, such as whoever settles into a mid-September lead generally wins. As of today, Obama has a slight advantage in the sum of polls, but who knows? One or the other may soon break the game open, perhaps before the ink on this column is dry, but, as of September’s third quarter, it’s anybody’s ballgame.
Which brings us to prevailing theories about the outcome. There are two dominant hypotheses, one predicting an Obama win; the other, a Romney victory.
Scenario number one, put simply: Simple common sense tells us Obama can’t win re-election. So this theory goes, there’s not one person who voted for GOP candidate John McCain in 2008 who will switch sides and vote for Obama after the past four years, but there are millions of former Obama supporters who will make for the political countryside and vote for Romney.
Romney himself has embraced this theory, evidenced by his casting the election as a referendum on the president, period. It’s not about him but about Obama.
This sounds persuasive, but it has a big flaw. Those voters deserting the Obama mountaintop cum volcano might be heading for safer ground, but it’s no guarantee they will settle in Romneyville. They might vote for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, or, more likely, disillusioned with both major parties, they might not vote at all.
The voter participation rate could plunge as fast as the labor force participation rate under Obama. In any case, Obama cruised to a seven-point win four years ago, so that’s a lot of switching to actually pull off.
The problem for Republicans is, voters really do still remember George W. Bush. They might not blame him like Mr. Obama does – they are smart enough to know Obama has made things far worse – but they know Bush was part of the big-government problem and not part of its solution.
They remember the wars, one that went on way too long and the other that never should have been fought; they remember his own lavish entitlement spending; they remember the rampant and gaudy crony capitalism and catering to wealthy corporate special interests.
They remember all this, and don’t want to go back. And when they look at Mr. Romney, despite all his generally conservative protestations, they see a candidate cut from the same big-government GOP establishment cloth, and they don’t trust it. Not voting suddenly looks like a very reasonable decision.
I happen to trust that Romney will stick to his conservative declarations, simply because he would have to, whereas Bush did not. When Bush was president, no Tea Party existed to hold the president accountable, while today the Tea Party is a central force within the conservative movement. The Tea Party has not hesitated to dump GOP incumbents when they show back-sliding tendencies, and that would also be the case with Mr. Romney.
But none of that means the conservatives have yet taken control of the Republican Party, and people know it. While the conservative movement is growing, the Republican Party is a party in transition, and that makes its situation tenuous in this election.
Mr. Romney is quite likely the last GOP establishment candidate who will be nominated. This year, the rising conservative stars – Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Nikki Haley and others – were too young and inexperienced to carry the day, but they are very likely the wave of the future.
Unfortunately, like consumers putting off the purchase of an iPhone 4S to wait for the iPhone5, voters may well decide to put off the purchase of a Romney presidency and wait for a truly conservative future. That’s why it was so critical for Romney to define himself with detailed policy prescriptions to back up the conservative rhetoric to wary voters.
The second scenario is that Mr. Obama has too many constituency weapons in his arsenal for Mr. Romney to overcome. There is the bedrock black vote, of course; there are the ideological liberals, who dominate the mainstream media and control the flow of information; there are the powerful public sector unions, the single largest constituency in the Democratic Party; and, perhaps most important, there are the welfare state and entitlement Americans who receive some kind of government check.
This theory takes into account vast demographic and political changes in America over the last generation. Blacks have been there for the Democratic Party since the 1960s, and that’s the case also for the ideological liberals, AKA the New Left, which captured the party late in that same decade.
Back then, though, none of that was enough to carry the day. Public sector unions were just getting off the ground. New Left Democrats had to reach out to Old Left Democrats and to conservative Democrats to win. They had to build coalitions.
Now they no longer do. With Republican help, public sector unions grew to be a commanding force in society. They have huge armies of organizers and enormous campaign warchests.
Also with the help of Republicans, the welfare and entitlement state has grown immensely. In 1980, about 30 percent of households received some sort of entitlement; today, it’s about 50 percent. That makes entitlement households the single largest voting bloc in the nation. Not every one of them will vote Democratic, but most are loathe to put their government benefits on the table.
The growth of these forces and the consolidation of political power arising from it is a recent phenomenon and helps explain why Bill Clinton moved to the center to survive and why President Obama has dug in his heels on the left. That’s where the power is.
But while these constituencies give Mr. Obama a formidable advantage, there are cracks in the foundation of this scenario as well. First, there is the sure growth of black conservatism, especially among younger African-Americans. About 33 percent of black Americans now identify themselves as conservative, though the mainstream media buries the reality and the possibilities. This does not really show up in presidential polls, and has not yet translated into votes, but it is there, and it doesn’t take much movement to change the dynamics of a close election.
Second, the mainstream media has lost its monopoly on the flow of information. In days gone by, as a column by L. Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal put it this past week, Walter Cronkite could once say, ‘And that’s the way it is,’ and you really had to take his word for it. The new media, from Twitter to Facebook, has leveled the playing field when it comes to messages resonating in the land.
As for public sector unions, their heyday is coming to an end. They have lost their public-opinion shine these past two years, and, if their lust for raw power and greed wasn’t exposed by going toe-to-toe with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker last year, the Chicago teacher’s strike surely has. Democrats as well as Republicans now see the need to rein in the power of public sector unions.
While these transitions inside the Republican and Democratic parties spell long-term trouble for the left, and oceans of opportunities for the right, none of these emerging realities may be enough to topple Obama in a close race this year. And so the race boils down to what happens as we head to the fourth quarter. There are the debates, of course, and world events could intervene, such as Mr. Obama’s handling of Iran or continued attacks by Islamic radicals on Americans in the Middle East.
But Romney has already made a critical fumble, in his interview on Meet the Press last Sunday, and it may have been decisive. Indeed, the most comparable moment might be the interview in 1980 that destroyed Ted Kennedy’s quest for the presidency when he could not answer the simple question, “Why are you running?”
Last Sunday, Mr. Romney couldn’t answer the simple question, “What are you going to do?” Yes, he was going to replace ObamaCare, but with what? We don’t know. Yes, he was going to close tax loopholes, but which ones? We don’t know. Conservatives were dismayed.
As The Wall Street Journal stated: “The GOP candidate might try explaining his policies. Just a thought.”
This is a campaign tactic that harks back to his belief that this is simply a referendum on the president. That led him to inexplicably sit quietly on the sidelines all summer while the Democrats pounded and defined him. Now he still fails to deliver a clear detailed message about what he would do if elected.
To be sure, the president has made his own blunders – you didn’t build that – and he has been small and divisive, but it just seems the Romney campaign has made the wrong bet in a close election.
And yet he is at least still in it. For that he can thank the rising conservative movement and its use of new media. He can thank the public sector unions for continually overplaying their hands. He can thank New Left Democrats for drifting far from the mainstream and helping stoke the powerful Tea Party movement.
But for all the constituencies rooting for him, they are the football players waiting for their quarterback to take them down the field and score. He may yet decide to get into the game and let America know what he stands for.
He had better. After four more years of massive entitlement and debt growth, four more years of the regulatory strangling of the private sector, four more years of shredding the constitution, individual liberty and freedom – after four more years of Obama, all these transitions and possibilities might not matter.
One can argue whether Romney wants to end Medicare as we know it, but there’s no doubt Obama wants to end America as we know it.
Richard Moore can be followed on Twitter at Twitter.com/rich1moore.