Monday, September 24, 2012

Scared Mittless?

I have been interested for a while now in comparisons between Mitt Romney’s campaign this year against President Barack Obama, and the 1996 race mounted by another Republican (also unloved by his party stalwarts), Bob Dole, against another incumbent Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Salon’s Steve Kornacki started comparing these two contests even before the disappointing Republican National Convention in August. He returns to that theme today, saying that Romney risks being abandoned by fundraisers and other GOP candidates in the same way Dole was 16 years ago:
We’ve seen party-aligned groups and down-ballot candidates give up on a White House candidate before. It’s what happened the last time a Democratic president sought reelection. Back then, Bill Clinton’s Republican challenger, Bob Dole, faced a persistent double-digit gap for the entire campaign. By the middle of October, after he failed to gain any momentum from the two debates, national Republicans essentially cast Dole aside. They were fighting retain control of the House and Senate, and in the ’96 home stretch they refocused their message on asking voters not to give Clinton a “blank check” in his second term by keeping Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill.

What’s curious about the Republican panic we’re now witnessing is that Romney really isn’t in that bad shape politically, at least by recent historical standards. Yes, he’s losing right now and he has been pretty much all year, but the average gap in the Real Clear Politics polling average is just under four points. Again, by comparison, Dole was losing by between 15 and 20 points at this same point in ’96, and even John Kerry--who faced loud griping from his own party in September 2004--trailed by about twice as much as Romney current does. And yet Republican pessimism is soaring.

Why is this? My guess is that it’s a combination of a genuine misreading of the structural factors shaping this race (basically: the economy is actually growing just enough for the race to be close, or for Obama to be a slight favorite-- but because unemployment is so stubbornly high, Republicans (and many non-Republicans) assume the race should be theirs to lose) and a recognition that the electorate’s growing partisan polarization means there are fewer true swing voters than ever--and that a three-point spread today might be the equivalent of, say, a six-point gap in the past.
READ MORE:Why Conservatives Are So Antsy About Mitt,” by Ed Kilgore (Washington Monthly); “Romney Camp to Change Message,” by Justin Sink (The Hill).

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