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How the Election Will Play Out (and Why Romney Will Win)

How the Election Will Play Out (and Why Romney Will Win)

By Robert Tracinski - July 19, 2012

The question in November is how many voters will accept Obama's warped message of resignation and resentment—how many will be like Ron Brownstein's swing voters—and how many will be repulsed by it. That, in turn, will depend on what Mitt Romney does to fight back, not just against the details of the negative attacks on him, but against the world view behind them.

When it comes to his record and his biography, I suspect that Mitt Romney has not yet begun to fight, and that is the other big development I'm predicting for the final months of the general election.

I have been speculating for some time—and others have begun to say the same thing—that Romney's election strategy can be described as "rope-a-dope." This was a sports reporter's coinage for Muhammad Ali's strategy in the famous 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman. Foreman was a large man known as a hard hitter, so Ali's strategy was to goad Foreman into throwing a frenzy of punches while Ali adopted a protective position and leaned against the ropes so they would help absorb the energy of the blows. Foreman fell for it and punched away in a fury, tiring himself out in the early rounds only to find himself fatigued while Ali was still fresh. Ali dominated the later rounds and knocked Foreman down long enough for the referee to call him out.

The analogy here is that Romney is letting the Obama campaign punch itself out, spending like crazy on a blitz of negative advertising early on, before swing voters have made up their minds or even paid much attention to the race. Meanwhile, Romney has been holding his fire and money, saving it for when it will really count.

Why is the Obama campaign falling for this? Because they have no other option. Here we have to refer back to the established rules of the horse-race analysis. When a president is running for re-election, it is inherently a referendum on the incumbent, so if his approval ratings are below 50%, he's in trouble. If a majority disapproves of his performance, that means they are going to be likely to cast their votes for the challenger. Obama is below 50% now. He's been around 47% in the RealClearPolitics average for a long time now, and since some of the polls tend to overestimate support for Democrats, the real number is probably a few points lower.

But this just means that voters are willing to consider the challenger, and you can still convince them to stop considering him. Which means that an embattled incumbent has only one way to win: convince voters that the challenger is not an acceptable alternative.

Hence the negative campaign against Romney. He needs to be made out as a corporate Snidely Whiplash who lays off workers, outsources their jobs to China, hides his profits in Swiss bank accounts, and lies about it to cover it all up. So that is exactly the story Obama's negative ads have been trying to tell. The attack ad in which Romney ties the girl to the railroad tracks is coming next.

There is no evidence that these negative ads have worked so far—the variation in the candidates' RCP poll averages has been within the range of static for at least a month—so the Obama campaign is turning the volume up to eleven. They have poured $100 million into advertising in swing states over the past month, three-quarters of which has gone into negative ads. And they have increased the seriousness of the accusations, to the point of hinting that Romney might be a felon.

But there is a big problem with dumping all these negative ads so early. If you bring up a charge in May or June, the Romney campaign and dozens of commentators and bloggers will have time to refute the attacks, or at least come up with convincing attempts to explain them away. You also run the risk of over-reaching—as in the Romney felony charge—and creating a story, not about Romney's wrongdoing, but about your campaign's unfair attacks. But most of all, these charges become "old news," so when the Obama campaign tries to bring them up again in October, once everyone is finally paying attention, the charges lose their impact because the press and the pundits have already heard it before. This business is called "news" for a reason, because it moves forward on things that are new.

So why has the Obama campaign launched their attack on Romney so early and allowed it to become so vicious? I think they realize that they are running out of time. If they don't "define" Romney in hopelessly negative terms now—and by "now," I mean now—the game is over. While I've been using the rope-a-dope analogy, Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin has come up with a somewhat grander analogy. Here is her description of Obama's strategy.

"Extend the Republican primary by running ads hitting Romney and encouraging Democrats to vote against Romney in Michigan and elsewhere. Then, before Romney could fully get his bearings, unload a barrage of negative attacks, scare-mongering, and thinly disguised oppo attacks through the mainstream media, taking advantage of many political reporters’ relative ignorance about the private equity field and their inclination to accept whole-hog President Obama’s version of 'facts.'

"The extent of that effort is only now becoming clear. The Associated Press reports: 'President Barack Obama’s campaign has spent nearly $100 million on television commercials in selected battleground states so far, unleashing a sustained early barrage designed to create lasting, negative impressions of Republican Mitt Romney before he and his allies ramp up for the fall.' Think of it like the Confederacy’s artillery barrage on the third day of Gettysburg before Pickett’s Charge—you have to in essence disable the other side before the charge begins, or it's curtains."

For those not versed in Civil War history, Pickett's Charge ends badly. I'll refer you to this scene from the magisterial 1993 film Gettysburg, which captures the point at which General Lee realizes the full scope of the debacle.

It's worth looking at why specifically the Obama campaign is running out of time. It has to do with money and with the calendar.

Obama started out with a distinct money advantage, since he could start raising money for the general election while Romney was still spending money on the primaries. But he is rapidly blowing his money advantage. In recent months, he has raised less than Romney and spent a lot more, particularly on his huge spree of negative ads.

Jack Wakeland first pointed this pattern out to me and speculated that Obama is running his campaign finances about as well as he has been running the nation's finances. The result is that it now looks as if Romney and his supporters will be able to outspend Obama by a significant margin in the final months of the race. And if there's one thing we learned from the primaries, it is that Romney can win when he's able to outspend his rivals.

Then there is the calendar. Outside of Washington and the media, most voters are not paying much attention to the race yet. And in exactly eight days, the Olympics begin.

The Olympics are the crucial dividing point, because they will dominate the airwaves and the news, sucking away whatever attention anyone is now paying to the election. So Obama's negative campaign blitz has to have whatever effect it's going to have in those eight days. But what happens when the Olympics start? To begin with, the Olympics provide an opportunity for Mitt Romney to highlight the best part of his record, his successful turnaround of the 2002 Winter Olympics. And he can do so without having to do very much or spend much money. It will be natural, after all, for the sports reporters covering the Olympics to mention Romney's history with the movement.

Obama can still be in the news during the Olympics just by showing up in London or doing something to root on the U.S. teams, but that's just a marginal bit of extra public exposure, not a message about his leadership. For Romney, by contrast, the Olympics are a leadership message. He can claim that his competence helped save a beloved institution whose appeal cuts across partisan lines. Remember that it was not his business success that launched Romney's political career. It was the Olympics: he ran for governor of Massachusetts in the afterglow of the 2002 games. Yet Romney's history with the Olympics has barely been mentioned yet, precisely because the Obama campaign can't find anything negative to say about it. Well, now it's going to be mentioned.

And what happens after the Olympics? There are only two weeks between the end of the Olympics and the beginning of the Republican National Convention. It is logical that Romney would use those two weeks to announce his vice-presidential running mate. There is some speculation that he would do so earlier, but with so few days left to the Olympics, I'm not sure he would risk having the announcement be overshadowed. So it's slightly more likely he will make the announcement a few days after the Olympics, which will have the effect of dominating the news for the period between the games and the convention.

Then the Republicans get to go first with their convention, giving them a chance to present all of the positive aspects of Romney's personal life and his professional achievements, just as most voters are beginning to tune in to the election. Which means that they have the opportunity to wipe out more than $100 million in Obama's negative advertising.

So what this means is that the Obama campaign has only eight days left to have it all their way. After that they will be upstaged for more than a month, and probably outspent for the rest of the campaign. If they want to make Romney seem unacceptable to swing voters, the next eight days are the whole game.

The big picture is that the Obama campaign is reaching its full tide. This is its moment of maximum impact, and everything after this is a pushback from the Romney campaign. So the fact that Obama is still just even in the polls, at the full extent of his effort, means that we can expect that everything from here on out will be a loss. From now on, the campaign will be about Romney making his own positive case, building back his image, setting his own message, firing back in the debates, and sending it all of home with giant advertising buys that Obama won't be able to match.

Jennifer Rubin's reference to Pickett's Charge reminded me of another scene from Gettysburg. An actor who has been serving as a spy for the Confederacy asks General Longstreet for a musket so that he can, for once, fight honorably as a regular soldier. Longstreet then explains to him why he thinks Pickett's Charge—which he hasn't been able to talk Lee out of—will fail. It is, he explains, like a mathematical equation, as he ticks off the casualties Pickett's division will take at each stage of the assault. He briefly entertains hope that the artillery barrage will cause the Yankees to panic and break, then he concludes that they won't, so "it's mathematical after all."

In much the same way, the numbers are against Obama. In political science, unemployment above 8%, economic growth below 2%, and approval ratings below 50%—all of it adds up to defeat. But the Obama campaign will entertain the hope that maybe, just maybe, they can vilify their opponent and create a negative impression of him in the minds of voters, or dredge up some scandal that knocks him out of the race before we even get to the conventions. They can hold on to that hope. And they're right: maybe it will happen. This has been a very unpredictable election from the beginning. But if something doesn't happen, and happen soon, the numbers kick in, and it's mathematical after all.

So far, the polls show that the negative ads haven't broken Romney's campaign. But there is a deeper ideological reason why this campaign is not likely to succeed. Remember that this is not just a negative campaign against Romney. It is a negative campaign against capitalism and against success. And it's not just that the Obama campaign overreaching with their negative attacks on Romney. They are also overreaching with their negative attacks on success. 

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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