Despite all of the anti-incumbent rancor in the country these days, the actual data paints a much different picture. Incumbents in the U.S. House and Senate are re-elected over 90% of the time. Historically, incumbent presidents have won about 70% of their re-election campaigns. Since 1892, only five U.S. presidents have failed to win when running for re-election. Herbert Hoover presided over the Great Depression. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush all lost after facing a primary challenge and a divided base. William Howard Taft essentially faced a primary and a divided base when fellow Republican Teddy Roosevelt came out of retirement to challenge him as a third party candidate in the general election.
History says whoever the Republicans nominated as an alternative was already facing an uphill battle to unseat an incumbent president. But the Romney campaign is making its task even taller by standing for little other than, “gee, doesn’t Obama suck?” If people just automatically voted out every politician they were dissatisfied with regardless of whom their opponent is, we’d have a lot more turnover in Washington, D.C. But that’s not what people do. They tend to vote first on likeability and trust, and those are two areas where Romney is sorely lacking.
A Fox News poll in early July found that just 27% of voters believe Romney “has a clear plan to improve the economy.” That is inexcusable and indefensible for the Romney campaign when you consider Romney’s economic expertise is his most legitimate claim to the presidency. A Fox News poll earlier this week had Romney with the support of just 41% of the American people. When you consider Obama has had arguably the worst three months of any president in recent memory who didn’t face a terrorist attack, personal scandal, stock market crash, or natural disaster, that is a clear repudiation of the Romney campaign’s current strategy.
Continuing with this strategy will only serve to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Reminding the American people of Obama’s failure is actually helping Obama. The American people are dissatisfied with his job performance, but personally they still like Obama. Whether it’s white guilt, his persona, or people are just more inclined to go with the devil they know over the devil they don’t, if this election remains a popularity contest the Republicans will lose.
The Republicans are constantly painted – sometimes rightfully so – by what they’re against and not what they’re for. Republicans fear being seen as obstructionists, but it’s their own strategy of not offering the country specific alternatives to Obama’s vision that makes them obstructionists. Romney is wealthy, white, and Wall Street. He cannot be seen as undermining a likeable president. That’s just what the Obama Regime wants. The Obama Regime wants to be seen as victims of his allegedly corporatist enemies. It’s their best chance at retaining the White House and leaving Obamacare in place.
There is no need to continue telling the American people what they already know—that Obama has failed to meet their expectations. The debate now needs to be about why Obama didn’t live up to their expectations. Is it because Obama’s enemies had it in for him from the beginning? Or is it because Obama’s policy positions have failed everywhere they’ve ever been tried in human history?
When elections are about personalities and biography, Democrats typically win. When elections are about issues, Republicans typically win. Just ask Presidents McCain and Dole.
Right now the American people are struggling with a choice between a president they like but don’t agree with, versus a challenger they’re not sure they like and don’t yet trust. If that remains the case, Obama will be re-elected. Romney needs to offer the country a specific alternative vision for the country, which he started to do in a rousing speech he gave in Pennsylvania this week.
But Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate that were exposed in the past two Republican primaries are becoming prevalent in the general. He doesn’t connect easily with voters, he’s hesitant to offer too many specifics so that he’s not held to something he can’t live up to later on (which given his past penchant for flip-flopping is a legitimate concern), and he’s too scripted by an incestuous batch of consultants. The reason his speech in Pennsylvania was his finest three minutes ever as a presidential candidate is because he threw away the talking points, spoke from the heart, and showed us there’s a real, live human being inside the well-coiffed exterior his campaign has constructed.
You do not become a successful global financier at Bain Capital by offering investors and shareholders milquetoast, clichés, and platitudes. That is a cold-blooded world of hard numbers, and bottom line solutions. So when Romney as a candidate fails to provide voters such things he is making it harder for them to trust him, thus making it harder for him to close the sale.
The American people know they are not replacing Obama with nothing. They know someone else will live in the White House for the next four years, and that person will make life-and-death, employed-or-unemployed decisions on their behalf. Voters are more inclined to give the incumbent they just voted in a second chance rather than dramatically switch course and give an unknown variable a first one.
If Romney wants voters to fully reject Obama’s vision for the country he must consistently and competently offer a specific competing one that is compelling. That’s the difference between being Ronald Reagan in 1980 or Bill Clinton in 1992, and being John Kerry in 2004.
That’s why this election is now a referendum on Romney. The majority of the American people are convinced Obama’s first term has been a disappointment. They’re not yet convinced a first term for Romney won’t be. It’s now up to Romney, and the “perpetual prevent defense” Republican Party establishment that backed him in the primary, to make that case.