Conventional wisdom, as well as a slew of polls, has the U.S. election in November riding mainly on the economy. Mitt Romney’s campaign certainly believes that to be true. Romney and his surrogates rarely talk about anything else.
When Barack Obama has tried to change the subject to almost anything else – gay marriage, contraception, and immigration being the latest subject changes – Romney has parried the attempts and stuck to the gloomy jobs situation and economic malaise. His efforts to dodge the immigration question and keep focus on the economy raised eyebrows even among conservatives; Byron York referred to Romney’s “timidity” in addressing the issue. “Perhaps Romney was just exercising his legendary caution,” York wrote. “But if Scalia and Sotomayor can agree on something, what would be the risk in Romney agreeing with it, too?”
Of course, Obama would love nothing more than an extended debate on immigration reform. In fact, he’d love to have an extended debate on anything else other than the economy. Obama has tried mightily to provoke Romney and Republicans into a debate on social issues like contraception, where polling suggests his strength lies. His efforts, however, to change the subject and move the election to other issues tacitly acknowledges that Team Obama also believes that the economy is a losing issue for the president.
Media reports have Team Obama eyeing a 2004 strategy from George W. Bush, in which they use social issues like contraception and immigration as opportunities to drive base turnout for an election win, much the same way Republicans used referendums on traditional-marriage laws in that election to help boost Republican turnout and score a narrow victory for Bush over John Kerry. But that strategy would fail on at least two grounds in 2012.
First, the progressive base in the U.S. electorate is smaller than the conservative base; a Gallup poll in January had conservatives outnumbering liberals 2-1. Second, the economy began roaring in late 2003 and early 2004, which made economic and jobs-related policy much less acute, leaving room for social issues to take center stage. That is very much not the case in 2012.
With that being said, just how vulnerable will Obama be on the economy? Conflicting economic indicators make that a difficult question to answer for the moment, and it may depend on just when voters start to pay attention.
Not all of the news has been bad. The manufacturing sector, which had been a bright spot in an otherwise stagnant recovery, had recently suffered big reversals and job losses. In May, though, activity picked up significantly, with durable goods orders rising 1.1 percent after two months of declines. This week brought good news on the housing front, which has been dismal for several years. Numbers jumped up significantly in the existing home market in May, rising over 6 percent to hit a two-year high. New-home sales rose even faster at 7.6 percent, also a two-year high.