Until the last ten days or so, I have not really understood how it would be possible for President Obama to win this election (barring some sort of national crisis that would spark momentary national unity). Things are going so badly in the country at this moment, and the president seems so bereft of new ideas on what to do about it, that this would appear to be a challenger’s ideal year. The base of each party would stick with its nominee, but undecideds and independents would break strongly in favor of the out-party.
But the pundits have started to call this a “base election” — one in which the undecideds and independents are not much of a factor, and the decision will depend on the level of excitement and anger present in the each of the two bases. Here, for example, is MSNBC’s First Read: “Undecideds don’t trust Obama on the economy, but like Romney even less. And their enthusiasm is way down, and they very well could stay home.”
So if Obama gets his people to be as scared/disgusted by the idea of a Romney win as, say, Tea Partiers are by an Obama reelection, he might actually be able to pull this off.
Here’s what a “base election” means in practical terms. A few years ago The Simpsons showed a Democratic convention with the banner “We Can’t Govern” and a GOP convention with one saying “We’re Just Plain Evil.” This is remarkably close to the actual political messaging of 2012. Governor Romney is patiently pointing out that, as I noted above, things are going very badly in America and that the government, under President Obama, seems completely at sea as to what to do about it. And for their part, the Democratic super PACs and other backers are accusing Romney of, among other things, waging war on women and causing cancer. In other words: “You can’t govern.” And “You’re just plain evil.”
My own bottom-line suspicion is that people in the Obama base might be disappointed enough in his actual performance in office — he was going to heal the oceans, remember, and now he can’t even get unemployment below 8 percent — that they will be rather more difficult to motivate than the GOP voters. Yes, it’s well known that Romney is unpopular among many conservatives — I get a lot of abuse from right-wing e-mailers and comboxers when I dare to say nice things about him — but it remains true that these very same conservatives are highly motivated to defeat Obama. Also, Romney could turn out to be better as president than he looks, to them, at this moment — but what Obama supporter, looking at the president’s first term, is likely to think, “Don’t worry, the second term might be better”? I am less certain than I used to be, but I still think, Advantage Romney.