Politics & Policy

A Bump Worth the Worry?

The GOP’s message men examine what worked and what didn’t in the past two weeks.

So why did President Obama roar out of the Democrats’ national convention in Charlotte with a sudden, seemingly solid lead in the tracking polls?

Did a combination of soft-focus anecdotes of Obama’s personality — Michelle Obama’s tales of a younger Obama who drove a car with a hole in the floor and once fished a used coffee table out of a dumpster — and slashing attacks on Mitt Romney prove to be the formula to dislodge the neck-and-neck status quo that defined this race for the summer?

#ad#Republican pollsters, strategists, and messaging specialists are digesting the conventions’ messages, polling data, and focus-group comments and piecing together what messages prompted the few percentage points’ shift in the tracking polls. In a race that has been essentially tied since Mitt Romney won the GOP nomination, every percentage point counts.

Don’t underestimate how much of the bump is wavering or soft Democrats coming home, says Brad Todd, a media strategist for Romney’s 2008 campaign and one of the lead consultants for the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2010.

“The first lady’s speech was the first shred of a positive campaign the Obama folks have offered,” Todd said. “There probably were a few folks waiting and eager for even a crumb. . . . There is no denying Obama has a deep well of good will with the American public. They wanted him to succeed. They would rather not give up on him, but I think in the end, they will. There’s just no metric of success for voters to grab onto.”

For much of the year, media coverage of the race has suggested that Obama’s poll numbers are kept aloft by an advantage in “favorability” — that while many Americans may not approve of the job Obama is doing or may not think the country is on the right track, they find him personally likeable.

Resurgent Republic is a right-of-center research group founded by former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie and pollster Whit Ares (Gillespie is now an adviser to Mitt Romney). The organization conducted 24 focus groups in battleground states among independents who voted for Obama in 2008, but who are not strongly committed to either candidate this cycle. Luke Frans, the executive director of Resurgent Republic, says the “favorability” discussion is a factor in the thinking of these voters, but it is overstated.

“Favorability is an important metric, but not necessarily vote-determinative,” Frans said. “President Obama had a net positive image in 2010, but that didn’t bail out Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats when voters went to the polls. His favorability is largely based on his being seen as an admirable family man, a good father and husband. That’s why you hear his detractors say Obama isn’t a bad person, just a bad president.”

But emphasizing that President Obama is a likeable guy is often a way for voters to mask their disapproval of his job performance, Frans argues. When Resurgent Republic’s focus-group leaders asked undecided voters to name something President Obama has done in office that they like, they gave him credit for trying, but they struggled to volunteer any domestic accomplishment and instead talked about his personal characteristics.

“Would a candidate rather have more voters like him than not? Sure. I just wouldn’t want this issue to be the sole crutch of a reelection bid,” Frans concluded.

“At the simplest level, people ‘like’ Obama because they see him as a trailblazer — identity politics is still a very powerful thing for many racial and ethnic minorities — who appears to have a good marriage and attractive children,” contends Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillon. “They may not approve of his job performance, but he is seen as a larger-than-life figure.”

#page#It is worth noting that the polling on Obama’s “favorability” reveals quite a range from survey to survey. CNN’s most recent survey gave the president a strong split of 57 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable, but the Washington Post/ABC News survey put the president “underwater,” with a 47 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable split. For much of the year, Obama’s “favorable” number has been in the low 50s, with an unfavorable score in the high 40s — not exactly as robust as the conventional wisdom on his likability might suggest. However, since Obama’s job approval has been about even or slightly underwater for much of the year, it is indisputable that the president’s perceived personal warmth is helping keep his overall numbers afloat.

Many Republican strategists think there’s little point in attempting to drive down Obama’s favorability numbers. A more fruitful line of argument, they say, is to argue that a different president would get better results or that Obama’s policies are making the country’s problems worse. The policy failures are clear even to congressional Democrats, who no longer use the term “stimulus.” Similarly, almost no at-risk congressional Democrats talk up Obamacare, and the administration’s policies on record foreclosure rates are deemed a failure by many.

#ad#Couvillon notes that the timing of the two conventions may have maximized the impact for Obama and significantly hindered Romney’s efforts. “For Republicans, the approach of Hurricane Isaac not only compressed the convention schedule, but Isaac was a distraction for those among the vast majority of Americans who don’t follow politics intently — especially because the storm was heading to Louisiana, and people were wondering if this was going to be another Katrina-type disaster,” he said. “And having both parties’ conventions back-to-back prevented the Republicans from having time to build much momentum out of the convention. It didn’t help that the Labor Day weekend came between the conventions. Democrats had the advantage of holding their convention after a holiday that traditionally is the ‘starting gate’ in terms of people tuning in.”

Where Obama’s favorability numbers may prove particularly useful for his reelection effort is if they help maintain an aura of positivity around an incumbent with a record that is difficult to tout, and who is running an exceedingly negative campaign. Couvillon contends that many analysts forget or misread why Obama’s 2008 campaign succeeded.

“The national mood that year was glum and cynical, and, as such, there was a hunger for someone different,” Couvillon says. “Obama’s — at the time –sunny optimism and his message of being post-racial and nonpartisan directly appealed to that hunger. . . . Like Hillary Clinton, John McCain was a ‘perfect opponent’ for Obama after the Lehman Brothers collapse. People forget now that after the Republican convention, McCain was doing very well in the polls and Obama was flailing after the ‘Celebrity’ ad. But once the collapse occurred, McCain’s erratic behavior — ‘suspending’ his campaign, attempting to run the TARP talks, and so forth — when contrasted with Obama’s cool demeanor, turned the race upside down. And once people liked what they thought they saw in Obama at that point in time, there was nothing McCain could do to change that.”

Tuesday morning, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll indicated a dramatic drop in Obama’s lead from Friday to Saturday. Perhaps Obama’s convention bump will prove a short-lived high in a tight trace, a momentary blip prompted by Bill Clinton’s remarks Wednesday night. However, the Obama campaign is sure to attempt to replicate whatever messaging magic spurred that sudden separation from their rival.

“I’m not sure I’m ready to say there was any kind of [lasting] bounce,” Todd said Monday. “Let’s wait and see where things are next week. So long as the president’s economic performance remains anemic, this will stay a close race.”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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