With Mitt Romney now the unofficial Republican nominee, the endorsements from the GOP leadership are rapidly coming forward. Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have given their blessing to the eventual standard bearer. Romney himself now directs all his attacks against President Obama. The Republican contest is nominally over, and the search for a potential Vice Presidential nominee is on in the Romney camp.
President Obama has been in campaign mode since the debt ceiling debate of last summer. Buoyed by better economic numbers and a discourse about greater economic fairness, Obama has recovered his approval ratings of a year ago after the disastrous summer showdown on the debt (47% according to Real Clear Politics average of polls ). Those ratings may be modest, but they are clearly more encouraging to the incumbent than a few months ago.
Despite these gains in recent months, Obama is still facing a close election unless Romney collapses from the scrutiny and the pressures of a Presidential campaign. This is unlikely, and noted Republican professional operatives like Ed Gillespie, Karl Rove, Charlie Black and others who have been closely involved with the Romney campaign will make sure it won’t happen. While the primary season and the Santorum challenge showed cracks in Romney’s candidacy, it is clear that a sluggish economy remains the front-and-center issue of the campaign. And here Obama is vulnerable.
Recent polls show Obama’s lead over Romney falling to a near toss-up. How Romney has been able to reduce the gap has little to do with his message or his skills. It has all to do with questions of jobs, economic security, and what Obama promised in 2008, hope. The goal of the Romney campaign is to make this election a referendum on Obama and his handling of the economy.
Poll numbers show this to be a potentially winning strategy, especially if last month’s job creation numbers of 120,000 (down from 230,000 the month before) become a trend. The Obama people are acutely aware of this and are countering with a strategy pitting their vision of the direction of the country against the one from Romney. They are quick to point out that Romney intends on continuing Bush type policies. The rhetoric on both sides leaves little ambiguity.
Referendum on Obama or on the direction of the country? It is unlikely that either strategy will win the day outside of their respective bases. The Democratic base will rally enthusiastically to the Obama approach, fearing the rule of the hard right of the GOP over the White House and Congress as well as eventual appointees to the US Supreme Court . The Republicans will do their best to blame all that is wrong in the US on Obama, and camouflaging the Bush policies that had a lot to do with the debt problems and the economic meltdown of 2007-2009. Independent voters will be caught in the middle with no clear winner in sight. Then, what will be the deciding factor?
I believe that the candidates themselves, their character and their temperament will play a role with independent voters. Here, a recent CNN poll showed strong favorables for Obama, and higher unfavorables for Romney. The primaries took their toll on Romney. Also, the question of the voting intentions of key constituencies in swing states will play a role. For instance, much is said about the current advantage Obama holds with women voters and the growing Latino vote. So this election is far from over and difficult to predict at this juncture.
We can say that it appears we’re heading for a cliffhanger. However, one should not underestimate the power of incumbency, temperament and character, and the likeability factor associated with the candidates. And here Obama currently has the advantage. The gloves are now off.