Amid a painfully slow economic recovery that could have put Barack Obama out of the game, the President has kept a relentless campaign focused on his opponent’s business experience and tax records and managed to stay in the game.
But on three Fridays between now and election day, Mr. Obama will face the prospect of yet another disappointing monthly jobs report and the task of spinning dreary economic numbers. The July numbers released last week provided above-expectations growth with 163,000 private sector jobs wrapped in a headline-grabbing increase in unemployment to 8.3 per cent.
With the economy’s fits and starts, any hope of Mr. Obama’s re-election bid being buoyed by a dramatic improvement to what has so far been a tepid recovery is all but gone.
“There’s literally no chance of anything good for the economy between now and November – with a chance of a lot of bad things happening in Europe that could shake everything in ways that are very hard to predict,” says University of California San Diego political scientist Samuel Popkin.
The bleak economic picture poses challenges for both campaigns with just three months before election day. For Mitt Romney’s campaign, the challenge is to finally capitalize on the gloomy mood of the electorate and sail past Mr. Obama in the polls. For the Obama campaign – which has waged a negative campaign focusing on Mr. Romney’s business record – it will be harder to pivot to a positive message.
“I’m sure that the Obama folks were hoping that they get to run on [a platform that asks] ‘Are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ like Reagan did back in 1984 and Clinton did in 1996. That’s not going to work,” says Paul Brewer of the University of Delaware’s Center for Political Communication.
The Romney campaign strategy of turning the election into a referendum on Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy stands the greatest chance of success. More Americans think that Mr. Romney would do a better job of handling the economy. But national polls of the electorate consistently show Mr. Obama with an average three-percentage-point lead, according to the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
In the crucial states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama holds a bigger lead, according to last week’s survey of swing states by Quinnipiac University, CBS News and The New York Times. This week’s survey showed Mr. Obama leading in Wisconsin and Virginia, but trailing in Colorado.
Spinning bad jobs numbers and a long economic recovery is no easy task for Mr. Obama.
On Aug. 3, the day the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its jobs numbers for July, Mr. Obama told a White House event that, while the private sector added jobs to the economy for 29 straight months, his administration had “more work to do” for millions still looking for work. Speaking in Las Vegas, Mr. Romney focused on 42 consecutive months with unemployment above 8 per cent and described the jobs number as a “hammer blow to struggling middle-class families.”
The Obama campaign has tried to keep the focus off the disappointing news.
A barrage of negative TV ads that started airing in key swing states in late June and into July sought to link Mr. Romney’s private equity firm Bain Capital to the outsourcing of American jobs to foreign companies.
Other ads focused on his tax records. “What is Mitt Romney hiding?” asks the narrator in one ad.
“Obama can’t escape blame for the economy – he’s been in office four years. He can only defuse it,” says Prof. Brewer.
Mr. Obama has blamed his predecessor and Republicans in Congress, as well as painting Mr. Romney as an “inferior alternative” who belongs to the same group of Wall Street bankers as those responsible for the country’s economic woes, adds Prof. Brewer.
Despite the disappointing jobs news, Mr. Obama continued to win the weekly news media cycle in July – the result of campaign attack ads and Mr. Romney’s unforced errors.
“Each week, these jobs reports or other negative economic indicators – or at least not inspiring ones – come out, and you think: ‘Okay, this is the week Obama’s going to get really hammered on the economy.’ But it turns out it’s the week about Romney’s tax returns or it’s about Romney’s gaffes at the London Olympics,” says Prof. Brewer.
Mr. Romney's July tour of Britain, Israel and Poland was intended to bolster his foreign policy credentials against a president who has achieved a string of foreign policy successes. But Mr. Romney's trip was overshadowed by several gaffes, including openly questioning Britain's preparedness ahead of the Olympics opening ceremony.
At home, Mr. Romney is still struggling to woo voters.
Poll results regularly show that most Americans, who have had four years of getting to know Mr. Obama, find him more likeable and believe he understands their problems – even if they do not approve of his economic record.
“The referendum on the incumbent only works if there’s substantial confidence that the other side is sound, solid and reliable,” says Prof. Popkin, adding that while Mr. Romney’s business success “does imply enormous confidence and intelligence to most people,” there are gaps in the public’s knowledge.
“Governor Romney has avoided using his character, his personal record or his time as governor [of Massachusetts] as part of his calling card. It’s mainly: I am very successful in business,” says Prof. Popkin, who worked as a consultant to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and is the author of The Candidate, an examination of presidential campaigns over the past 60 years.
The Republican party convention beginning Aug. 27 in Tampa Bay, Fla., will provide Mr. Romney a big stage and a chance to channel a new message, adds Prof. Brewer.
For the Obama campaign, there is a clear imperative in its negative attacks.
It worked in 2004 for then president George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.
Mr. Bush saw his approval ratings drop over the costs and handling of the Iraq war. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush’s allies used the early part of the campaign to sow doubt about Senator John Kerry’s Vietnam war record and depict him as a “flip-flopper.”
The Obama campaign is hoping a similar strategy will work during a period of lacklustre economic returns and public disappointment.
“The Obama people are clearly trying to define Romney in the public mind before Romney really gets a chance to do that. So that explains why [the Obama campaign went] negative so early,” says Prof. Brewer.
Karl Rove, the architect behind the 2004 Bush campaign, argued in a Wall Street Journal column last week that Mr. Obama’s negative ads have not worked.
“These ads have not moved him up in the polls,” Mr. Rove wrote.
Prof. Brewer says polls of individual states suggest gains for the Obama campaign are “pretty clear and tangible.”
For the “hope and change” candidate of 2008, his 2012 tone may not sit well among some voters – even if research shows that negative ads can be effective.
There is also the danger of an Obama message that may begin to tire, says Prof. Brewer.
“You can’t just attack Romney on tax returns for the next 100 days.”