“If we let up and our voters don’t turn out, we could lose this election. The good news is, if our voters do turn out, we will definitely win the election.”
-- President Obama talking to volunteers at a Chicago phone bank.
As the rest of America waits to see whom the residents of Ohio decide should be president, it is helpful to consider why such a big election would come down to just a few counties in one state.
In part, it is the function of political geography.
The three largest states, California, Texas and New York, which comprise more than a quarter of the nation’s population, have been foregone electoral conclusions for a generation. And 70 percent of Americans live in states that were never seriously in doubt this cycle.
Yes, the blue states keep getting bluer and the red states keep getting redder. And yes, the ideological differences between the parties are now so deep that the idea of 49-state landslides like the ones won in previous generations look like ancient history.
But this election is also shaping up this way because of how the incumbent campaigned.
The message to the New York Times, conveyed in today’s paper, is that the Obama campaign had been expecting this moment all along and has always been expecting the moment that the president’s team would be “grinding it out.”
Power Play doubts seriously that Obama & Co. ever really expected that the president would be trailing Republican nominee Mitt Romney 11 days before the election or that Romney would have been able to sustain a late surge so long.
They expected a close race, no doubt, but based on their campaign strategy of withering character attacks on Romney, they would have hardly expected to see the challenger 3 points ahead in the Washington Post/ABC news poll and having held a lead in the Real Clear Politics Average every day except for three since the 10th of October.
The close race that Obama no doubt foresaw was one like the race between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004 in which the incumbent is pursued by a challenger until the very end, but manages to pull out the win.
At this point in 2004, Bush had a 3.3 percent advantage over Kerry, bigger than his final 2.4 percent popular vote victory, but on track with the final result. Kerry had led early but never regained his frontrunner status after August 26.
In this case, the incumbent led every day, except for a four-day GOP convention bounce, between May 1 and Oct. 9.
Power Play readers know that part of the problem for the president was painting a picture of the Republican challenger that was so cartoonish and evil that the reality of Romney deflated the caricature that Obama spent hundreds of millions of dollars drawing with swing state attack ads.
An effective attack hews just close enough to reality that it taints and turns the positive perception of the intended target. By trying to disqualify Romney on character points for so long, Obama actually built a straw man for Romney to tear down. Both candidates are running, in effect, against the Romney straw man.
But the other reason that Obama finds himself “grinding it out” is that he never gave himself the chance to do anything else.
Obama the political strategist, the one on display in the Des Moines Register Editorial Board meeting, assumed all along that this would be a base-versus-base election in which a superior Democratic ground game, a cash advantage and the power of incumbency would take him to a narrow but decisive victory.
To that end, almost everything Obama has done in the past two years has been about rallying or placating different parts of his base. He has played slap-chop politics with narrow appeals to single women, Hispanics, college students, gay people, government worker union members, black voters, etc.
A nod on same-sex marriage here. A mandate for insurance coverage of the pill there. A limited amnesty program for illegal immigrants over yonder.
His campaign has maintained the same slice and dice politics all along, with the president repeating the same talking points over and over again for more than a year, never offering anything new and never opening his arms to moderates and even Republicans the way he had in 2008.
Democrats pride themselves on their cynicism in this, saying that the president faced reality and prepared for a grindingly small election in which turnout machines not big ideas carried the day. And certainly it’s the plan a roomful of political consultants would have devised two years ago.
But Obama underestimated the volatility of the electorate as well as the capacity of his fellow Americans.
Obama had a chance to offer a rousing defense of his first term and then lay out a vision for a second term and make an appeal to the center. But he opted against it, playing it safe and going small – pretending that voters are mechanical beings rather than emotional ones.
This left the door wide open for Romney to reach out to the center and talk about big ideas to address big problems. While they are both short on specifics, Romney’s subject matter is of a larger scale.
The challenger is asking voters to look at the big picture and take big steps. Obama is focused on issues like the gaffe of an Indiana Senate candidate on abortion. Romney is making a closing argument while Obama is still trying to rally his base.
As a result, the incumbent has seemed listless and stale. Obama likes to joke about his gray hairs, but Obama really does seem worn out and dated now. He seems like someone who is enduring his presidency and this re-election bid rather than someone who is relishing the opportunities.
The president may find a way to get enough pro-choice single ladies, same-sex couples, young Hispanics, college students, union members and black voters to go to the polls in Ohio to block Romney. Obama might be able to raise a coalition large enough to keep power.
But imagine the day after such an election. Imagine the administration that would follow.
If Obama did win in this grinding, negative fashion, how would he govern? He would likely be a lame duck from the first day, presiding over a continually divided and dysfunctional Washington.
Voters may not be able to put their finger on what worries them about Obama’s slap-chop politics, but it is the prospect of it’s continuation for another four years that causes the concern.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I think he has made a strategic decision to abandon the advantage of being incumbent and having the presidential air by using that kind of language, by going on the soft venues, giving ridiculous speeches about "Romnesia." This is the man who gave one of the great political speeches in American history eight years ago and he's talking about "Romnesia" and all this small stuff.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.