Let me just start by saying I hate horse race electoral analysis, because it’s bullshit. Not just meaningless, it’s frequently done by analysts who are on the payroll in one way or another of Wall Street or telecoms or pharma or whoever. More than that, the data is terrible. Despite the vaunted social scientists who claim, essentially, that elections can be manipulated through exquisitely crafted micro-targeting, we just don’t know that much about how voters behave. And more than that, politicians and pollsters don’t want to know. In 2008, it was obvious that foreclosures were going to have a massive impact on the electoral landscape. From 2008-2011, I counted one, yes, just one, paper looking at this problem. Tom Ferguson and Jie Chen showed that housing price declines were the main reason for Scott Brown’s capture of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. The only other study I’ve seen took place this year, showing that 60% of Milwaukee’s black voters from 2008 have disappeared.
You can’t run a control America in which an economic crisis happened, and a non-control America in which one didn’t happen. So you can’t know what kind of impact the financial crisis and foreclosure crisis have had on voters, until after the election. But the fact that there is almost no analysis of the foreclosure crisis in the electoral context shows that political elites just don’t want to know what’s really going on. Field people, who are in charge of door knocking, know exactly how bad it is, because they know that if you can’t find your voters, you can’t get them to the polls. But if this were acknowledged, then the foreclosure crisis would have to be acknowledged, and then the banking oligarchs would have to be acknowledged. Better to run shitty campaigns based on poor data promoted dishonestly by hacks getting speaking fees from various trade associations. So recognize, first of all, that nearly all the prognostication you’re hearing on TV and radio, which is done by an intentionally ignorant professional class who just wants their team to win. It’s Jeff Connaughton’s “blob”, sliming its way through our broadcast media infrastructure.
That said, here’s my horse race electoral analysis!
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A debate happened, and Obama didn’t do well. Prior to tonight, the conventional wisdom was that debates don’t determine elections. I have no idea if this is true going forward, and the only way to know is to watch the polls over the next few days. If every registered voter watched this debate and made a decision about who to vote for based on this debate, Mitt Romney would win. But who watched the debate? And do people decide based on this debate (or the post-debate spin)? Only Gallup can tell. Still, it’s useful to know what happened, and why, because at the very least, Obama and his team was embarrassed tonight. We’re in an election season, so the press is probably going to turn to this as An Important Moment (see the CNN headline: Romney Shakes Up Race)
From what I can tell, the trends that led Romney to do well in this debate are macro. Obama is not a bad debater, and he was not underprepared. Both Romney and Obama are executing their messaging strategy, it’s just that Romney’s worked, and Obama’s didn’t. Romney is pointing to the bad economy, and Obama is staying likeable and above the fray. Romney and his team believe that they can simply point to a failed economic strategy by the administration, and voters will fire Obama. Obama and his team think that Obama is viewed as a warm person, and they want to emphasize that he can relate to Americans in a way that Romney can’t.
As for Romney, he went to the left. Romney, just by not appearing to a creepy out of touch Mr. Burns, punctured Obama’s bubble. But he also did something that an operative friend reminded me of. He appeared just like George W. Bush in the 2000 debates, where Bush appeared more moderate and left-wing. Gore tried the math attack on Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security (Bush double counted contributions), and Bush countered with the infamous line about “fuzzy math”. This time, Romney did the same thing, he just said that Obama’s claims about his own plan weren’t true. They were true. Romney continued to lie about his plans. He said he wouldn’t cut taxes for the wealthy, slash education spending, cut health care, Social Security, or Medicare for current seniors. He went after Obama for cutting social programs. Romney, in essence, debated like a liberal Massachusetts Republican. Nothing he said was true, in all likelihood. But Romney does believe that Obama’s stewardship of the economy is terrible, and he was able to sell that quite effectively.
The reason Obama did poorly is simple. He is bad at governing America. He hasn’t solved the foreclosure crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, the energy crisis, the financial crisis, the debt crisis, the health care crisis, or really, anything. He can’t point to very much that Americans broadly like, except killing Bin Laden and the auto bailout. His second term agenda is to cut Social Security, Medicare, frack, cut corporate taxes, bust more teachers unions and pass more neoliberal trade agreements. He is proud of this record. So are his people. But he knows he can’t run on it because it’s unpopular, so instead, he presented himself as a nice likeable guy.
He frequently complimented Romney, agreed with him on most core policy arguments, and just generally avoided pointing out the many times Romney was lying. He didn’t bring up social issues like abortion, or really, any weak spots for Romney. He tried to present himself as a fighter for the middle class, but he doesn’t actually respect people he perceives have less strength than he does. Obama believes in pity for the middle class, not respect. Nor does Obama like Romney. So Obama came off passive and unpersuasive, making a case he didn’t believe in. It’s like George W. Bush, who couldn’t put two words together fluently unless he was talking death and destruction, and then he was a virtuoso rhetorician. Obama is at his best when he is talking about himself and his family, because that’s what he likes and believes in. That’s why his 2008 campaign worked, because it was all framed around Obama The Savior. It was mass narcissism (and even then, he only narrowly beat John McCain). If you’re wondering why Obama is a bad speaker now, where the old Obama went, just recognize that he’s only a great speaker when it’s all about him, because that’s where his interest is. The talent is there, the character, not.
Will this debate matter? Probably, at least in the short-term. The media wants a race. It’s bad for business if Obama pockets the race this early, but it has been too embarrassing for pundits to cheerlead for Romney to get him back in it. That the polls are this close with such an incompetent challenger campaign is a bad sign for the incumbent. Obama was also about to cut off Romney’s donor air supply, painting him as a lost cause. Romney will now find fundraising easier, since he can claim he has a plausible path to victory. And the press can legitimately paint Romney as a potentially good leader, and push his numbers up. On the other hand, Obama is the weakest incumbent since Jimmy Carter, but Romney’s inept campaign was reaching legendary status. The underlying demographic numbers are bad for Romney – he is doing horrifically with Hispanics, and Democrats are fairly energized (though the Democratic Party is smaller than it was in 2008). He is also still a bad candidate, running a bad campaign, and the Bain stuff hasn’t gone away.
Obama is usually pretty good with his back to the wall, so I’m guessing he’ll reevaluate what happened and shift his strategy to frame the issues more favorably. He might bring up social issues, he’s comfortable on foreign policy questions, and he won’t have to deal with the economy as much in future debates. And Romney isn’t particularly persuasive on foreign policy. This race is still Obama’s to lose.