Fantastic piece by Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics today. After the Mark Haleprin post below I got to thinking about the ebbs and flows of the campaign and here comes Trende with an exceptional breakdown of the events driving polls throughout the year. The weak economy, ineffective President and no second term agenda — election fundamentals — should sink Obama’s chances. But his campaign continues to, in Trende’s words, “defy gravity” through a series of calculated moves that maintain his lead despite the election fundamentals working so decisively against him. What you see in the write-up is how so few “events” are by accident and the masterful 2008 campaign by Obama was no fluke:
Team Obama has had one overriding goal this cycle — to keep the president ahead of Mitt Romney in the polls. The reason is simple: Obama is, and always has been, something of a bandwagon candidate. A major theme in 2008 was always that supporting Obama enabled the voter to be a part of history, encouraging others to join in the process. But for that theme to work, the perception had to be that Obama was, in fact, going to win. So every time there was a real or potential setback, Team Obama was ready to change the subject.
Consider, for example, the president losing the Democratic primary in West Virginia on May 13, 2008, by 40 points. The rollout of John Edwards’ endorsement the next day was clearly meant to change the headlines and to counter the obvious storyline about Obama’s weakness with working-class whites. Similarly, after the third debate in 2008, Obama’s lead over John McCain shrunk from 8.2 points on Oct. 14 to five points as of Oct. 19. And on Oct. 19, Colin Powell endorsed Obama, reversing that momentum.
2012 and poll compression
Over time, the president’s lead gradually deteriorates. When it gets too close, he makes a major play to change the dynamic, pushing the lead back up.
February to May
February. Mitt Romney has just lost the South Carolina primary, and a good jobs report has helped push Obama to a six-point lead. But over time, gravity takes its toll. At first it is a result of Romney’s opponents dropping out: Santorum at the beginning of April and Gingrich at the beginning of May. This helps Romney solidify his base.
Obama response I
In the week ending June 18, we begin to see a spike in ad spending in swing states from the Obama campaign. This is the beginning of the “Bain Capital” assault. It pays some dividends, as the president captures a four-point lead just as the second spending push comes at the beginning of July. But over time, gravity again takes over. By the end of July we are once more moving toward a tie.
Obama response II
At the end of July and in early August, the White House begins hammering Romney over his tax returns; Harry Reid claims that the GOP nominee failed to pay any taxes in several years; and Priorities USA launches the ad with the steelworker implying that Romney was at least partially responsible for his wife’s death.
These conversations dominate early August, so much so that Team Romney feels obligated to make its vice presidential pick early lest it completely loses control of the narrative. This reverses the trajectory of the race, and by the end of the Republican National Convention, Romney has worked himself into a tie with the president.
Obama response III
Of course, this is promptly reversed by the quite successful DNC. But over time, we see gravity reassert itself. After the Benghazi attacks of Sept. 11, the president’s lead again begins to deteriorate. By the weekend, the tracking polls are suggesting some major movement against Obama. Gallup is moving toward a tie, and indeed might have shown the president trailing over the weekend of the 14th.
Obama response IV
Then on Sept. 17, the “47 percent” video drops. Obama moves out to a four-point lead (note that something else big happens around that time). But once again, gravity takes over. Even before the first debate, Obama has seen the polls begin to close.
Maintaining the facade
Why is it so important to the Obama camp that he stay ahead this time? … [Because] the fundamentals [are what] dictate the [election] result to a much larger degree.
Why it’s working
- First, the bandwagon effect affects fundraising. Once you move outside the partisan core, people like to back winners. This is especially true of the business community. By assiduously cultivating its front-runner status, the Obama campaign has aided its ability to press future arguments.
- Second, maintaining a lead allows greater leeway in the arguments it can make. Something like the “cancer ad” from August looks hard-hitting from a campaign that is leading (and I certainly include candidate super PACs as part of the “campaign”), but would probably be described as “desperate” from one that is losing.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it affects press portrayals of the candidates and party enthusiasm. This is the most important thing here: I still think the default expectation here has been that Obama should be losing. (emphasis added)
High wire act
So the view that Obama is going to lose can — or at least could have — quickly become the conventional wisdom. If that happens, we would end up with a vicious cycle that looks something like this: The Democratic base becomes downtrodden, its enthusiasm falls, the right’s enthusiasm skyrockets, the likely-voter screens skew more Republican, and Obama falls even further behind in the polls. Instead, we have a campaign where everyone marvels at Obama’s constant lead, further adding to the mythos surrounding his supposed inability to lose.
The mask slips
This is why the Oct. 3 debate really might have marked an important, structural change point in the campaign. [W]e’ve seen exactly the combination Team Obama worked assiduously to avoid: Romney re-consolidating his base, Republican enthusiasm skyrocketing, and the president’s aura of invulnerability pierced.
This leaves two important, unknown questions. First, to where does gravity pull Obama? Is the mean to which he regresses a narrow lead? Or is it a significant loss? Political science models are split, with the average model showing an Obama lead of a few 10ths of a point. We don’t yet really know where gravity naturally drags the president to, although the bottoms he reached over the summer suggest that it would be at least a small Romney lead with likely voters. Second, what else, if anything, does Team Obama have to push back against gravity? The 47 percent video seems like something that would normally be held until later in the campaign. Is there anything else it can use to push back against the natural trajectory of the race? We’ll find out, and if we get a few more polls like the Pew poll, I suspect that we will find out sooner rather than later.