Taking a look at the latest public opinion polls, it appears President
Obama got at least a modest bump following last week’s Democratic
convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. This may or may not be
significant, but at the very least it suggests a bit of a lost
opportunity for the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney.
Heading into the party conventions, the polls had the race basically
tied. The Republican convention in Tampa, Florida seemed to set up the
Romney campaign for an opportunity in which they could better connect
with the public as to who their candidate is, what he stands for and why
people should like him more.
But a film highlighting Mitt Romney’s personal qualities was eliminated
from the precious 10-11pm hour of network television the final night of
the Republican convention. Instead, viewers got Hollywood icon Clint
Eastwood, who decided at the last minute he’d like to yell at a chair
(holding an imaginary President Obama) while thousands inside the
convention hall and millions more watching at home squirmed uneasily.
The result was a classic lost political opportunity. Mr. Romney did a
credible job in delivering his speech, but the post-Republican
convention polls showed at best a one-point bump in popularity. Granted
this is a close race and has been from the beginning, but coming out of
Tampa with very little to show in terms of momentum and changing the
public’s view of Mr. Romney was not the outcome Republicans wanted.
Obama Bump Thanks to Bill and Michelle
The final word on President Obama’s post-convention bounce will come
within a few days as the pollsters digest voter reactions to the
Democrats’ Charlotte convention. I was struck by the energy among
Democrats I found there for the upcoming campaign.
I had figured the Republicans would be all revved up to beat the
president in November, even if they weren’t convinced that Mitt Romney
was the best guy to carry them into battle. The Democrats also put on a
good show and managed to do a better job of presenting their party
positions on foreign policy and even national security, something the
Republicans usually had an advantage on.
The Democrats also had some powerful surrogates—First lady Michelle
Obama and former President Bill Clinton. It looks as though Mr. Clinton
will win the gold as the best speaker from both conventions, giving the
president a huge boost, especially with moderates who’ve been
disappointed in Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy and his inability to
solve political polarization in Washington (as if any one politician
The president’s speech was solid but not spectacular, in the view of
many Democratic delegates. But the contrasts the Democrats were able to
draw with Republicans on a host of social issues and their attention to
women voters gave them a leg up over the Republicans heading into the
final weeks of the campaign.
Debates Make or Break
So now we have Mr. Romney looking ahead to the presidential debates as
perhaps his last chance to alter the dynamics of the race. His selection
of Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate didn’t seem to have
much impact on the polls, probably because that choice doesn’t really
speak to moderates looking for some sort of ‘game changer’ that would
make them more likely to abandon the president and fall in behind Mr.
And now we have the aftermath of the conventions, where the president
seems to have pulled into a slight lead. All this points to the
importance of Mr. Romney needing to make his case in a series of three
presidential debates beginning October 3rd in Denver.
Most of the time, the debates don’t produce a clear winner and
likelihood of either candidate land a “knock-out” blow seems remote.
Often they focus on non-verbal moments like President George H. W. Bush
checking his watch in 1992 or Al Gore sighing in his matchup with George
W. Bush in 2000.
It’s possible the Obama campaign will adopt a strategy to play defense
in the debates and simply try to deny Mr. Romney the chance to score any
significant points. But from the point of view of the Romney campaign, I
think they will need to be aggressive, knowing full well that unless he
can find a way to alter the current dynamic of the race in the next few
weeks, it’s possible the president will be able to hang on to his modest
lead and run out the clock on the Republicans by election day November
Of course, putting too much emphasis on an aggressive debate performance
is risky. Mr. Romney did well in the Republican primary debates earlier
this year. In fact, I would argue that is a key reason why he was able
to prevail and become the nominee.
during his Republican convention speech, Mr. Romney tried to appeal to
disenchanted Obama supporters with a less confrontational tone.
Apparently, he hoped to win over moderates who still like the president
but believe his policies have failed.
But switching tone in the debates to an aggressive attack mode risks
alienating that small pool of remaining undecided voters who may retain
a measure of affinity for the president even though they are unhappy
with the economy and the general direction of the country.
Going into the debates, both campaigns are aware that voters may be open
to firing President Obama because of the weak economy. But the Romney
camp has yet to make a convincing argument that voters should hire their
guy, either because they don’t like him, haven’t heard enough specifics
about his policies or aren’t sure he could really do much better anyway.
In any event, the debates shape up as Mitt Romney’s last/best/perhaps
only hope to win the White House in 2012.