Despite media reports of a rocky week within the Obama campaign and the president’s repetitive and overlong address on the economy given in Ohio on Thursday, his prospects for re-election have not looked so good since his first hundred days.
Of course, you would not know it, to hear the press’s opinion of the state of the race. The media—particularly the major cable news outlets—like nothing better than a tight race. “Neck and neck;” “all tied up;” “could go either way;” “close all the way to the end.”
When was the last time they portrayed a presidential primary or election any differently? It was how they painted the Obama-Clinton primary in 2008 until Obama formally passed the delegate threshold in early June—despite the fact that he had maintained roughly the same 100-delegate lead over Clinton for over three months, since late February.
The Obama-McCain general election later that year was treated with much the same contrived suspense, even after McCain pulled out of Michigan in October, effectively conceding every lean-blue state but Pennsylvania; even after poll after poll in the closing weeks of the campaign showed Obama with a projected electoral college lead of over 100 votes.
This year’s general election is being handled no differently by the McNews crowd. If one was to take what the news outlets had to say about the Obama-Romney race as gospel, one would think this country was split right down the middle between these two candidates.
And that, of course, is how the press would like it to be, even the outlets that don’t push toward it in their coverage. After all, there is simply less news in a race that everyone knows the outcome of.
A noncompetitive race, by definition, lacks suspense, and therefore lacks energy, and will therefore recruit fewer viewers and readers.
Romney’s biggest problem is that the Republican base just doesn’t like him nearly as much as they dislike Obama. Even the die-hard Republican voters I know—the kind who don’t believe President Obama is an American citizen or even a Christian, the kind who would vote for anyone but Obama simply to vote against him specifically—are not getting hot behind the ears for Romney in the way they did about Reagan, and W., and even John McCain.
No Republican Party candidate for president in more than forty years has won with fewer than ten of the eleven states that make up what is traditionally considered the American South, the eleven states that formally seceded in 1860 and 1861 to form the Confederate States of America: Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas.
The last Republican to win with fewer than ten out of eleven of these states was Richard Nixon in 1968. In George W. Bush’s two electoral college victories, he won all eleven both times. In 2008, McCain lost three to Obama: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.
What is the likelihood that Mitt Romney—a Mormon worth a quarter of a billion dollars who spent his entire professional and public life in New England, who does not look natural in anything less expensive than slacks and a tie—will be able to do better than McCain did in Dixie, much less connect with southerners on the gut level that George W. Bush did?
Mitt Romney also faces the more traditional challenger’s problem of an uphill battle against a somewhat popular incumbent president.
President Obama, despite taking office with a scant four years’ national political experience, has nonetheless proven himself competent to the majority of Americans.
(Competence has become the principal requirement for a U.S. president, since the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate scandal eliminated the ideas of the heroic president and the trustworthy president, respectively.)
A president who has not managed to prove his competence to the American people stands very little chance of being reelected, no matter the strength of his challenger. Think President Ford’s loss to Jimmy Carter in 1976, and President Carter’s loss, in turn, to Ronald Reagan in 1980.
A president who has proven his competence, however, poses a formidable wall for any challenger bent on a campaign against an incumbent. In this instance, instead think President Reagan’s 49-state landslide against Walter Mondale in 1984, or President Clinton’s 200-vote electoral college landslide against Bob Dole in 1996.
For those of us who followed the Obama ‘08 campaign with a zeal comparable only to an old-time religious revival, the Obama ‘12 campaign has been distinctively underwhelming.
But, then again, why wouldn’t it be, in comparison? The Obama ’08 campaign had so much more to accomplish and so much more to prove.
For the first seventeen months of its existence—from February 2007 until early June 2008—its principal foe was the textbook definition of unbeatable, the number one sure thing of all Democratic Party time: Hillary Clinton for the nomination in 2008.
The Obama ’12 campaign, on the other hand, did not even have a clear challenger until Rick Santorum finally quit gnawing at Romney’s leg in early April.
Since then Romney has been trying his best to gin up support and excitement for his candidacy among the Republican base, but has made little more than a collective whisper in the ears of the vast majority of Americans who, not being newshounds or political junkies, do not hear this stuff by default.
In turn, the Obama campaign has responded with little more than whispers itself, and has been focusing its resources mainly on reviving the giant ground game it led in 2008.
The same strategy assured an Obama electoral college victory four years ago, and will almost certainly do the same this year. But goddamn, it sure is boring.
In the end, consider Romney’s chances and appeal through the lens of a cowboy hat litmus test. No Republican since Nixon has received his party’s nomination for president without looking natural—or at least comfortable—in a cowboy hat.
Some of them were proactive in their wear of cowboy hats and use of them as political imagery. Reagan, despite being a Hollywood man for most of his life, nonetheless posed frequently for the press on his California ranch, riding horses in cowboy boots and hat.
His vice president George H. W. Bush had a similar shtick, despite being a native of Maine. During his successful 1988 campaign to succeed Reagan as president, he painted himself as a true-blue Texan, bringing cowboy hats and pork rinds and country music to his rallies.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney. Has anyone ever seen him in a cowboy hat? Who could imagine him in a cowboy hat? He probably couldn’t fit anything short of a ten-gallon over that diamond-encrusted hair of his, even if he tried.
This may sound like an awful shallow thing for which to condemn a major party’s presidential nominee. And this is not the writer’s reason for condemning Romney—although I do have plenty of those—but is consciously or subconsciously simply a major issue for his party’s voters.
The Republican Party simply cannot win a presidential election without the backing of what two-time Democratic Party presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson called America’s “unthinking majority:” those voters for whom image is the dominant aspect of picking a presidential candidate.
For these voters, whether they support Obama or Romney, or simply haven’t made their mind up yet, Obama’s image is nonetheless the much more clearly defined of the two.
For the knee-jerk conservatives of our unthinking majority, voting against Obama seems like a much more pressing priority than voting for some guy like Romney. And, in this situation, it becomes very hard for Romney to win.
It is much the same problem that the Democrats faced in 2004. Their voters were absolutely on fire to vote against George W. Bush. Nonetheless, voting for John Kerry didn’t exactly excite anyone. In the end, Kerry lost by a stadium’s worth of votes in Ohio.
About the author: Ian MacIsaac is a staff writer for the Capital City Free Press. He is a history major at Auburn University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama and former co-editor of the school newspaper, the AUMnibus.
Copyright © Capital City Free Press