Published October 04, 2012
The key battle of this election was known to both campaigns well in advance. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns understood that the 2012 election would come down to a big fight to determine on whose terms the election would be fought. The Romney campaign wanted the election to be a referendum on President Obama’s first term. The Obama campaign wanted it to be a choice between the two candidates.
As it turns out, both could get their way.
Romney waded into the election attacking Obama for being “in over his head” and solely responsible for the weak economy and high unemployment. The job was just too much for Obama, Romney said. It was time to elect someone who “knows how businesses work” so we can get the economy moving again.
The message was strong, and was designed to put Obama on the defense, but it had a flaw.
It set the Obama campaign to transition from Romney's business experience to his Bain experience and gradually shift the election away from a referendum on Obama and towards a choice between Obama and Romney.
This was a predictable move but nobody expected that it would be as effective as it was. In fact, the pivot was so successful that Obama neutralized the premise of Romney’s entire campaign. In June, polls found that Romney held a 7 point advantage with voters when asked which candidate is better at creating jobs. By September, Obama was tied with Romney on that same question.
Today, Obama has formidable leads in national and swing state polls. My own estimate puts Obama just 5 Electoral College votes short of 270 and another four years in the White House.
So much for that referendum election, right?
Obama’s strength creates an ironic problem. As the media consumes poll after poll and begin to trumpet a perceived Obama victory, voters will be forced to confront the fact of his re-election. They will have to ask themselves one more time if this is what they want. At that point, this might no longer be a choice election, it would instead be a referendum on the president -- the race Romney has always wanted.
Should that moment happen, it would be the Romney campaign’s best shot at being able to turn the election around. If Romney's recent high profile speeches are any gauge, he might just have the message to make that happen.
Romney’s most powerful line of the entire campaign came during his speech at the Republican Convention when he said, "President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family." That’s the type of message that can break through to voters but we hardly hear it.
In Wednesday night's debate, Romney not only delivered that type of message, he did so with the fire and confidence that could give voters confidence in his ability to bring about the change many claim to want. It was the type of performance that will give many voters pause when considering why this guy is down in so many polls.
Obama still has major advantages. The electoral map gives him many pathways to victory and runaway leads with women and Hispanics could serve as a firewall.
But with November 6 just over thirty days away, this election is still up for grabs. It might be too little too late for Romney or it could be the beginning of a comeback for the history books if he can start to connect the dots he laid out in the RNC speech and Wednesday night's debate. Either way, Romney will have been given a chance to argue this election on his terms. Whether he has what it takes to make the most of it the second time around is yet to be seen.