I saw a few minutes of the Lawrence O’Donnell show this evening, a segment that was intended to be devoted to exultation over the poll numbers Katrina mentioned a few hours ago. Yes, Obama leads Romney by six points among registered voters; yes, that lead widens to eight points among voters in battleground states; and yes, Romney’s unfavorables are five points higher than his favorables — a situation in which a candidate almost always loses. But, cautioned Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post on the O’Donnell show, the only situation in which a candidate risks losing to the opponent who is “underwater” in the way Romney is happens to be the exact situation in which President Obama now finds himself: an election in which a) there is one dominant issue and b) the candidate momentarily ahead in the polls has a vulnerability on precisely that issue. Cillizza may have been sorry to have had to rain on MSNBC’s parade, but I think he was exactly right on this.
And this dovetails nicely with why I think the Obama commercial in which Romney sings “America the Beautiful” while engaging in serial acts of outsourcing is not very effective. Sure, it’s a beautifully executed ad in the abstract — the way Romney’s voice starts sounding dark, hollow, and echoey toward the end is a textbook example of how to underscore the message that your opponent is a bad guy. But ads don’t exist in the abstract: They appear in a context in which viewers have specific hopes and fears. The number one fear Americans have at this moment is that the president who was elected with such a tide of public goodwill just four years ago simply doesn’t have any more to give when it comes to the economy: He tried his best and things haven’t gotten any better. What they need to hear from him is a credible explanation of how a second Obama term would be better than the first. Until that question has a credible answer, Obama is wasting time running clever commercials about the real or supposed character flaws of his opponent. People will merely react to such ads according to partisan predisposition: Democrats will say, Sure, that’s the way Republicans are, they’re a bunch of heartless plutocrats; Republicans will say, Democrats are such lying meanies (and oh, by the way: the media are biased against us). Meanwhile, independents and undecideds will just dismiss it all as equal-and-opposite mudslinging: The Republicans call Obama a socialist with a fake birth certificate, the Democrats call Romney a greedy outsourcing felon. They’re all scoundrels; what are ya gonna do?
The only way for Obama to break out of this dynamic is to actually meet the voters where they are, by confronting what they’re really worried about: that, when it comes to the economy, his well of ideas has run dry. On a list of voter concerns they were showing on the O’Donnell show, the only one on which Romney was leading Obama was the economy. And Obama still doesn’t seem to understand the danger this poses to his candidacy.
The numbers show Obama up by half a dozen points, but in reality the race is a dead heat, with the tiebreaker going to Romney.