In the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt, an examination of a key question before Republicans and conservatives this year:
Do Wavering Obama Voters Think the Man They Voted For Is Naïve?
How do you persuade someone who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 to vote for the Republican option in 2012?
It is bigger than the million-dollar question. Republican turnout may or may not be higher than in 2008. Some Obama voters of 2008 will stay home in 2012. But in the end, Obama had 69.4 million votes in 2008 and McCain had 59.9 million. To get to 270 electoral votes, the Republican nominee will need some of those 69.4 million to swing into his column.
Not long ago, our great deputy managing editor Kevin Williamson noted:
The most acute division on the right — the one that will give Mitt Romney the most trouble — is not between moderates and hard-core right-wingers, between electability-minded pragmatists and ideologues, or between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. It is between those Republicans who disagree with Barack Obama, believing his policies to be mistaken, and those who hate Barack Obama, believing him to be wicked. Mitt Romney is the candidate of the former, but is regarded with suspicion, or worse, by the latter. The former group of Republicans would be happy merely to win the presidential election, but the latter are after something more: a national repudiation of President Obama, of his governmental overreach, and of managerial progressivism mainly as practiced by Democrats but also as practiced by Republicans.
It is unlikely that those seeking a national act of electoral penance for having elected Barack Obama are going to get what they are after. For one thing, the number of Americans who believe President Obama to be merely incompetent is far greater than the number of Americans who believe him to be, not to put too fine a point on it, evil. For another, that larger group of voters is, for once, probably right.
Generally speaking, people hate admitting they made a mistake — particularly over a decision that is culturally regarded as important as one’s presidential choice. That’s why you still see cars with Dole-Kemp, Gore-Lieberman, and Kerry-Edwards stickers in some parts. Very few Obama voters will express their vote for the GOP nomination in 2012 as an explicit act of personal penance for bad judgment. (Although I stand by my position that anyone who voted for John Edwards for president should sit out the next two presidential elections, examining their spectacularly wrong assessment of his character in quiet contemplation.)
No, a lot of Obama voters must be persuaded that they made the wrong choice in 2008, and that it isn’t their fault.
Monday I spoke to a smart political mind who had been watching focus groups of wavering Obama voters in swing states, and he said that one word that those voters kept coming back to, again and again, was “naïve.” (The term was to describe the president, not themselves.) Those who voted for Obama won’t call him stupid, and certainly don’t accept that he’s evil. But they have seen grandiose promises on the stimulus fail to materialize, Obamacare touted as the answer to all their health care needs and turn out to be nothing of the sort, pledges of amazing imminent advances in alternative energy, and so on. He seemed to think that reaching out to the Iranians would lead to a change in the regime’s behavior and attitudes. He was surprised to learn that shovel-ready projects were not, in fact, shovel-ready. He was surprised to learn that large-scale investment in infrastructure and clean-energy projects wouldn’t great enormous numbers of new jobs. He’s surprised that his past housing policies haven’t helped struggling homeowners like he promised. He’s surprised that his signature health-care policy has become as controversial as it has. The “recession turned out to be a lot deeper than any of us realized.” When a woman says her semiconductor engineer husband can’t find a job, Obama says he’s surprised to hear it, because “he often hears business leaders in that field talk of a scarcity of skilled workers.”
The poor guy. He’s always getting blindsided.
Some cynics might look at this pattern and conclude that Obama isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, or his fans think he is. Others might conclude some variation of the Reagan line, that the problem with Obama isn’t that he’s ignorant; it’s just that he knows so much that isn’t so.
If we’re seeking to persuade Obama voters that it’s okay to vote for someone else this time, perhaps we need to reinforce that notion that he just doesn’t quite understand how things work in the real world — that he understands the theories of job creation, but not the practice. He talks about a future of algae-powered cars while rejecting pipelines.
It ties to a theory I’ve had for a while, that most apolitical voters desperately want to avoid concluding that the first African-American President of the United States is a failure, on par with a second term for Jimmy Carter. As a result, they will give Obama until the very last minute to demonstrate an ability to get the job done, to demonstrate that he can generate tangible improvements in their lives. But, if around October 2012, people don’t see tangible improvements in their lives, well . . . the bottom may fall out of his numbers. He’ll still have his loyal base, but the vast majority of independents will decide he just can’t get the job done.