A month ago, the RNC officially named Mitt Romney its presumptive nominee and signed a partnership agreement to raise funds for the presidential election. The Barack Obama campaign responded by launching its own campaign against Romney. Team Obama and the DNC hit Romney on his track record at Bain Capital, rolled out its “Life of Julia” to attract support from women, especially single professionals, and both campaigns put their rapid-response teams on full alert.
Who won the first round? The latest ABC News/ Washington Post presidential poll shows Mitt Romney gaining strength, at least in terms of favorability, especially in two key demographics: independent voters and women. Romney’s favorability among women increased by 13 points in the first month of the head-to-head campaign while Obama dropped seven points. ABC reports that most of those gains came from single women – the very demographic targeted by Obama with its “Life of Julia” campaign and the attacks on Romney over the supposed Republican “war on women.”
Clearly, Obama has gotten off to a bad start, despite having a one-year jump on the general election campaign over Romney’s organization. The days of talking about a billion-dollar juggernaut for Obama have long since passed. With Obama only two points ahead of Romney in the Real Clear Politics poll average at 45.7 percent/43.7 percent -- well below the 50 percent level an incumbent should have at this stage of a challenge – Obama and his team look a lot more vulnerable than most people imagined.
Could Barack Obama lose this election? This month makes it look a lot more possible than some imagined, and the months ahead are full of pitfalls. Some of the variables are largely out of his control, such as job creation over the summer. Hiring has dropped off the last two months, and a new job report out tomorrow is expected to continue the streak of mediocrity at 165,000.
Policy changes at this point would not take effect for months, though a quick resolution to the CBO’s “Taxmageddon” of tax hikes and scheduled spending cuts might produce enough relief in the investment community to spark a hiring rally. That would require Obama to cut a deal with Republicans in Congress on tax rates, and so far, neither party has suggested even a formula for a compromise.
If Obama wants to win this election, he can’t depend on the promise of another mirage Recovery Summer. The President has to address five pitfalls into which he and his campaign have already stumbled if he wants to remain President.
1 – Repair relations with the business community. Frankly, this might be as far out of Obama’s hands as the dysfunctional job-creation engine of the US economy, and for related reasons. Obama has dumped a ton of expensive new regulation onto businesses, either directly through Dodd-Frank and the PPACA (ObamaCare), or indirectly through onerous restrictions on power production, especially on coal, which supplies 46 percent of all electrical power in the US. Larger businesses mind regulation less; they have economies of scale which make them more efficient at compliance, which puts smaller competitors at a disadvantage.
Unfortunately for Obama, he can’t exploit that difference. Obama has spent most of the last eight months alienating Wall Street with his class-warfare rhetoric. That spawned the Occupy movement, with a big organizing boost from labor unions, both of which created no small amount of resentment in the investor class. Obama has tried to mollify these potential donors, many of whom have refused to donate to Obama after watching the mask slip for most of the past year. That brings us to …
2 – Stop debating over private and public equity track records. Seriously, who on Obama’s team thought the “vampire capitalist” attack would work? A similar effort by Newt Gingrich flopped spectacularly a few months ago. Romney’s team clearly prepared for the attack, however, because they immediately pointed out that Obama’s claim to economic brilliance by saving the auto industry came through forced closings of hundreds of GM and Chrysler dealerships, with job losses in the tens of thousands. Furthermore, the debate over investment strategies put Obama’s loss of over a half-billion dollars in the Solyndra collapse and other green-sector bankruptcies back on the table. Not only did the attack on Bain come across as anti-investment, exacerbating Obama’s issues with the investor class, it also highlighted Romney’s success and Obama’s failures in equity investment.
3 – Embrace the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. It probably won’t pass, but at least adopting it as a deficit reduction plan will make Obama look serious about budgets. Obama created the deficit-reform commission himself, and has ignored their recommendations ever since. He raised expectations only to casually disappoint voters almost as soon as the ink was dry on the proposal. Obama’s budget proposals for the last two fiscal years lacked seriousness to such a degree that they received zero votes in three tries in Congress – not even a single vote from a member of his own party.
4 – Reconnect with struggling working-class voters. This sounds easier than it will be in practice, and not just because of Obama’s tone when dealing with rural and suburban families. A new Washington Post analysis of unemployment data shows that the employment level in “prime age” males, roughly 25-54 years of age, is the worst since 1948. As Reuters noted yesterday, the problem is particularly concentrated in the Rust Belt in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Wisconsin, all states Obama won in 2008. The moribund economy has done more damage here than almost anywhere else. Republicans won big in all four states in the 2010 midterms, and unless Obama finds a way to win them back over the summer, these states could give the election to Romney.
5 – End the battle with the Catholic Church. No stumble has been as avoidable as the confrontation provoked by the Obama administration over the HHS contraception and sterilization coverage mandate. Catholic bishops have pressed for universal health-care coverage in the US for almost a century, and were a natural ally for Obama’s social-justice initiatives. All that changed when Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius decided that the federal government could define religious expression in such a way that Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities didn’t qualify, and therefore could not opt out of the mandate – even when they self-insure, as many do.
Last week, 43 Catholic institutions filed lawsuits against HHS over the mandate in 12 different federal courts. The news media didn’t do much to cover the lawsuits, but the bishops have kept parishioners well-informed on the issue for months. In 2008, Catholics comprised 27 percent of the overall vote, which Obama won by nine points, 54/45. A poll taken by Pew in April shows Obama losing the Catholic vote 45/50 to Romney. The difference between 54 percent and 45 percent of the Catholic vote in the 2008 election comes to a little over 3 million votes – a pretty large chunk of votes to give away.
In contrast, expanding the exemption to cover religious institutions such as hospitals, schools, and charities would only mean leaving less than a million people to pay for their own contraception, as people have always done with no problem, as the CDC’s own data shows. Recasting the exemption would immediately get Catholic bishops out of the way and allow the Obama campaign to argue that they have the best ability to deliver on social-justice reforms. At this point it may be too late to reclaim the votes they have already lost, but at least they could stanch the bleeding in a demographic Obama won handily four years ago.
Obama could still win this election, but if he keeps tripping over these same pitfalls, he’ll be lucky to prevent a Jimmy Carter-like loss in November.