National Review’s Jim Geraghty asked this question Tuesday:
How do you persuade someone who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 to vote for the Republican option in 2012?
It is bigger than the million-dollar question. Republican turnout may or may not be higher than in 2008. Some Obama voters of 2008 will stay home in 2012. But in the end, Obama had 69.4 million votes in 2008 and McCain had 59.9 million. To get to 270 electoral votes, the Republican nominee will need some of those 69.4 million to swing into his column. …
Generally speaking, people hate admitting they made a mistake — particularly over a decision that is culturally regarded as important as one’s presidential choice. That’s why you still see cars with Dole-Kemp, Gore-Lieberman, and Kerry-Edwards stickers in some parts. Very few Obama voters will express their vote for the GOP nomination in 2012 as an explicit act of personal penance for bad judgment. (Although I stand by my position that anyone who voted for John Edwards for president should sit out the next two presidential elections, examining their spectacularly wrong assessment of his character in quiet contemplation.)
No, a lot of Obama voters must be persuaded that they made the wrong choice in 2008, and that it isn’t their fault. …
Monday I spoke to a smart political mind who had been watching focus groups of wavering Obama voters in swing states, and he said that one word that those voters kept coming back to, again and again, was “naïve.” (The term was to describe the president, not themselves.) Those who voted for Obama won’t call him stupid, and certainly don’t accept that he’s evil. But they have seen grandiose promises on the stimulus fail to materialize, Obamacare touted as the answer to all their health care needs and turn out to be nothing of the sort, pledges of amazing imminent advances in alternative energy, and so on. He seemed to think that reaching out to the Iranians would lead to a change in the regime’s behavior and attitudes. He was surprised to learn that shovel-ready projects were not, in fact, shovel-ready. He was surprised to learn that large-scale investment in infrastructure and clean-energy projects wouldn’t great enormous numbers of new jobs. He’s surprised that his past housing policies haven’t helped struggling homeowners like he promised. He’ssurprised that his signature health-care policy has become as controversial as it has. The “recession turned out to be a lot deeper than any of us realized.” When a woman says her semiconductor engineer husband can’t find a job, Obama says he’s surprised to hear it, because “he often hears business leaders in that field talk of a scarcity of skilled workers.” …
It ties to a theory I’ve had for a while, that most apolitical voters desperately want to avoid concluding that the first African-American President of the United States is a failure, on par with a second term for Jimmy Carter. As a result, they will give Obama until the very last minute to demonstrate an ability to get the job done, to demonstrate that he can generate tangible improvements in their lives. But, if around October 2012, people don’t see tangible improvements in their lives, well . . . the bottom may fall out of his numbers. He’ll still have his loyal base, but the vast majority of independents will decide he just can’t get the job done.
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto picked up that theme later Tuesday:
This notion does not actually contradict the idea that Obama is a hard-left radical pursuing terribly destructive policies. It just leaves open the possibility that he is a foolish idealist rather than an evil genius–which seems a more realistic measure of the man in any case. As Peggy Noonan put it in October: “A nation in trouble probably wants a fatherly, or motherly, figure at the top. What America has right now is a bright, lost older brother.”
Taranto quotes The Atlantic’s Alexander Abad-Santos:
Monday night Romney was crisscrossing Ohio, when he spoke about the President and opened up a can of . . . friendliness: “This is a failed presidency,” Romney was quoted as saying. “He’s a nice guy, but he’s in over his head.” Though we’ll never know if Romney actually believes any part of that unsult, we do know that “Nice guy” has become the candidate’s favorite setup when taking a dig at his rivals.
And a dig it is, Taranto adds:
“He’s a nice guy, but . . .” is exquisitely condescending. It’s probably not true: Obama strikes us as a petulant narcissist. But calling someone a “nice guy” is rarely a genuine compliment, and it never is when conjoined by “but.” As any man who has ever been rejected by a woman knows, describing someone as “a nice guy, but . . .” is another way of saying he’s ineffectual. That is exactly the point Romney is making about Obama. …
Yet if Geraghty is right, Romney’s approach is better suited to capturing independent swing voters. It will be easier for them to change their minds if they believe they overestimated Obama’s competence rather than that they supported somebody who posed a “foundational” threat to America.
Geraghty returned to the subject Wednesday:
When you prompt non-diehard Obama voters to think of their expectations on Election Day 2008, they’ll probably conclude that some, many, or all, are unmet. They’ll probably talk about the epic economic anxieties that were gripping almost all Americans in the autumn of 2008. They’ll probably express this in very personal terms, about the value of their home, the value of their 401(k) or other retirement savings, their ability to find a job or find a better job than the one they have now. Perhaps they’ll remember the exorbitant gasoline prices from the summer of 2008. They may remember their incredulity at TARP, at watching the richest people they could imagine — Wall Street bankers! — coming to Congress and begging for billions and saying that if they didn’t get it, the economy would collapse. Long-established businesses were declaring bankruptcy left and right: Lehman Brothers. Washington Mutual, IndyMac, Circuit City, Linens n’ Things. The 2008 election occurred amidst an atmosphere of unequaled crisis. You almost can’t blame late-breaking Obama voters for turning to a candidate who was running as a messiah figure. …
My suspicion is that most Obama voters figured that by the spring of 2012, the United States would be in much better shape than it is now. They may not have had specific benchmarks in mind — 8.3 percent unemployment, $3.82 per gallon gasoline, and so on. But they probably doubted that they would see the federal government fining them for not having health insurance. (Remember that Obama ran against the individual mandate in the Democratic primary.) …
So the first task is to contrast the prospect of Obama, the ideal that some of his voters expected, and what he has been and produced. If you can get an Obama voter to express disappointment in the man they voted for in 2008, well, you’re halfway to getting that voter to A) vote Republican or B) not vote, which is almost as good for our purposes.
Taranto’s last point is also in keeping with something I’ve commented on before (it came up in a different context Wednesday) that explains what both happened to the huge congressional majorities of Obama’s first two years in the White House and his current poll numbers.
Obama either misinterpreted or willfully ignored the implications of the 2008 election results as being a mandate for change. They were not. Voters wanted Obama to make things better, and they certainly are not. (And Democrats took the fall for Obama’s failures in November 2010, didn’t they?) Other than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, every single significant American economic measure is worse off than when Obama took office in 2009. And every measure of federal finances is significantly worse off than when Obama took office. The last three years have certainly hammered home the fact that change is inevitable, but positive change is not.
Since at least 1976, every presidential election has been decided by how the deciding plurality of voters thought the economy was doing. The majority party in the White House owns the economy, period. Unless the economy improves to a magnitude unlikely to happen in less than eight months, the question Ronald Reagan famously asked in 1980 — are you better off now than you were four years ago — is set to get Obama fired in 2012.