Despite the languorous weather and the decamping of many Americans to Vacationland, the election season is staying lively, and will probably remain so at least until the Olympics begin on July 27.
At the presidential level, there has been a notable contrast between the two campaigns and parties, and very stable polling. The main pro-Obama Super-PAC, Priorities USA, has been conducting heavy battleground state advertising pounding Mitt Romney for Bain Capital’s alleged outsourcing activities and (most recently) for his failure to release more than partial tax returns for just the two most recent years. The president and other Democrats have joined in through earned media outlets. The apparent strategy is to fatally undermine Romney’s use of his business background as a credential for the presidency, and then to go after the controversial GOP policy agenda encompassed in the Ryan Budget, which Romney has embraced. This two-pronged approach is being supplemented by a party-wide effort to make expiration of the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 a year (which has been polling quite well) as a litmus-test issue separating the two parties decisively.
Aside from some intense skirmishing over when, exactly, Mitt Romney relinquished control of Bain Capital (germane to some of the firm’s more aggressive involving in outsourcing), the battle over Bain-and-taxes has settled into a quasi-ideological struggle in which the Obama campaign accuses Romney of promoting outsourcing and evading taxes, and the Romney campaign accuses Obama of disrespecting private-sector businesses. Both sides are now regularly calling each other “liars.” A thrill went through the conservative blogosphere earlier this week when Romney’s campaign, reacting harshly to Obama campaign suggestions of possible illegal SEC filings by the Republican candidate, authorized harsh personal attacks on the president and dropped hints it might embrace a “vetting” of Obama, a code word for the kind of conspiracy-oriented attacks that John McCain famously refused to undertake in 2008. It’s unclear whether that was merely a base-pleasing feint, a threat, or something more serious, though it may also indicate that Team Romney is worried about the damage to his messaging that a toxification of Bain Capital might produce.
None of this wild activity has had a tangible affect on public opinion, though three national and one state (Virginia) poll late this week indicated small gains by Romney. An important national survey of Latinos showed Obama hitting or exceeding his marks in that demographic. And Democratic concerns about signs that Obama’s personal favorability ratings (which have previously been higher than his job approval ratings) are flagging are being matched by Republican concerns that Romney’s already poor personal ratings will take a beating from the attacks on his business record, and even more from his tax problem.
A consensus is emerging that the election will ultimately be decided one key variable: whether the minority vote—which represents a larger part of the population than in 2008, and is just as solidly as ever for Obama—will turn out in sufficient quantities to offset Obama losses among non-college educated white voters. The Bain/Tax line of attack by Obama, soon to be followed by an assault on the Ryan Budget, is intended to stop the bleeding among “white working class” voters, especially in the Midwest, particularly since that same segment of the electorate is likely to react negatively to continued signs of economic stagnation. The demographic factor also explains why Obama is doing relatively well in states like North Carolina and Virginia—where his coalition is less reliant on white voters—and is showing surprising weakness in the upper Midwest, where minority voters are relatively sparse.
A recent sideshow to the presidential contest has been heightened speculation—likely generated by the Romney campaign to distract media attention from the Bain and tax issues—about the GOP vice-presidential choice. A large trial balloon for Condoleezza Rice was lofted by the Drudge Report (a reliable outlet for Team Mitt) at the beginning of this week—very unlikely to be realistic given her pro-choice views and her close association with George W. Bush—before speculation settled on a probable “final three” of Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman and Bobby Jindal. All three are acceptable to the “movement conservatives” with most interest in this subject.
Down-ballot races are beginning to take much clearer form. The battle for the Senate remains a barn-burner. Having gotten lucky in Senate developments earlier in the year, Democrats are now worried about Nevada, where Rep. Shelly Berkeley is enmeshed in a House Ethics Committee investigation of possible conflicts of interest involving her husband’s business. Republicans also seem to have been making some public opinion gains in Florida and Ohio. Two GOP primaries just on the horizon could have a big impact on the general election: in Missouri (August 7), where a fractious three-way contest among candidates all claiming to be the sole “true conservative” in the race could give Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill some breathing room; and in Wisconsin (August 14), where another three-way primary with similar dynamics (though in this case, it’s two “movement conservatives,” one with tons of money, who are challenging the conservative credentials of GOP warhorse Tommy Thompson) could help Democrat Tammy Baldwin.
Even sooner (July 31), Texas holds a Senate runoff that won’t affect the partisan balance but will affect internal GOP party dynamics: a very expensive and contentious battle between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst—backed by Gov. Rick Perry and most of the state’s Republican Establishment—and former state treasurer Ted Cruz, who is being backed heavily by just about every national right-wing voice and bankroll, from FreedomWorks to the Club for Growth to Sarah Palin. Polls have consistently shown Cruz gaining on Dewhurst, who ran first in the initial primary; at least one has shown him ahead. Most of the smart money is on Cruz and another scalp for the Tea Party Movement, despite Dewhurst’s frantic efforts to move right as far and fast as is possible.
The House landscape is as always the most difficult to figure out, particularly given the close relationship, in these days of partisan polarization, between presidential and House candidates. Democrats must achieve a net gain of 25 seats to retake the House. And while the respected Cook Political Report shows 55 races as competitive, 23 of those are in districts currently controlled by Democrats. Another handicapper, Roll Call’s Stu Rothenberg, is blunt about it:
A detailed, race-by-race evaluation of the House suggests that Republicans already have 201 safe seats, with 11 more rated by my newsletter as “Republican Favored,” a barely competitive category. An additional 14 seats are rated as “Lean Republican.”
If Republicans lose every race my newsletter currently rates as “Toss-up/Tilt Republican,” “Toss-up” or “Toss-up/Tilt Democrat,” they would still win 226 seats in the House — eight more than needed for a majority.
It will take a “wave” election to regain the House for Democrats, and that means a big shift in what now looks like a close presidential election, and/or the realization that the Obama campaign’s big early investment in GOTV strategies (supplemented by labor and other pro-Democratic interests) will have a big net payoff down-ballot.
Photo Credit: Austen Hufford