Matt Browne is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; he writes here in a personal capacity
On the eve of the Democratic Convention in Charlotte, an argument has broken out in the party over President Obama’s economic record and message. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan in 1980, the central issue is whether to claim Americans are better off today than they were four years ago.
On the Sunday chat shows, the White House’s David Plouffe offered a nuanced evaluation of the nation’s economic performance, reflecting a widely held view that the pace of economic recovery had been too slow for too many Americans to feel the benefit. On Monday, however, Obama’s deputy campaign director, Stephanie Cutter, was much more bullish, claiming Americans were undoubtedly better off today than they were four years ago - contrasting today’s stability with declining wages, mass redundancies and the impending financial crash in 2008.
As the economy takes centre stage, these tensions reflect a growing desire among Democratic loyalists to see a much clearer distinction between President Obama’s and Governor Romney’s economic vision - one based on future solutions rather than personal biographies.
With unemployment sticking stubbornly above 8 per cent, the benchmark President Obama set himself for re-election, and national polls suggesting he and Governor Romney are effectively tied in the race, is it now safe to assume job numbers and economic visions will determine who occupies the White House in 2013? The economy is undoubtedly the number one issue on the minds of Americans.
Below the radar, however, the contest between the demographic and electoral college advantages that favor the Democrats, and the campaign war chests of the Republicans and their conservative allies, may yet still prove decisive.
While national polls show the candidates in a tie, campaign insiders acknowledge the electoral college map still favors President Obama: 270 electoral college vote are needed to win the Presidency, and current projections suggest Obama has approximately 230 (leaning strongly in favour of the President), to Mitt Romney’s 180.
In the battleground states, then, where 130 college votes are up for grabs, Romney’s challenge is twice as hard as the President’s. And, in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan – three crucial contests – public polling shows the President has a five to eight point lead.
Similarly, among women, African Americans, Hispanics and the Millenials, the President also has a commanding lead. In Tampa, the Republicans were at pains to profile their own women and Hispanic leaders, and to tear down President Obama’s record for college graduates. Perhaps the most resonant line from their convention was Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan’s vision of jobless college graduates returning to live with their parents and hanging their 2008 Obama “Hope” poster on their old bedroom wall.
The problem for Republicans, however, is not the profile of their politicians, it’s their policies - on college loans, immigration, and contraception and gay marriage among others.
When it comes to campaign finances and those of the their allies, however, the advantage clearly lies with Governor Romney, who has been out-fundraising the President almost two to one in recent months. While his official spending has been limited to date, candidates must distinguish between funds for primaries and the presidential elections, and can only spend the latter once they officially become the party’s nominee. Romney has also benefitted from massive support from outside groups.
A 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case effectively removed any cap on corporate spending on flanking interest campaigns, and we are set to see unprecedented levels of private spending by interest groups in this cycle. Observes can expect the next two months to be very bloody, and extremely costly.
To some extent, the Republican and Conservative spending advantage could be offset by the bully pulpit of the White House, which affords the incumbent an invaluable communications platform. This, of course, depends upon the news the President must share from the podium. On the Friday following his Convention speech, Americans will receive the latest monthly jobs numbers. This, perhaps, explains the sense of urgency in Democratic circles about the need for a clear economic narrative that marries an explanation of the current trajectory with a future policy agenda.
In Tampa, Romney’s speech presented an incoherent economic narrative. Perhaps due to the untimely death of Neil Armstrong, he called for smaller government, lower taxes and less government spending, while simultaneously becoming nostalgic for 60s America and the heroism and ambition of the Apollo Project, one of the largest and most successful examples of government spending in the nation’s history.
The Obama campaign has asked Americans to look forward, not back. Romney, like Dole in 1996, may have provided the perfect foil for a Democratic President’s convention speech. The challenge for President Obama is to take this opportunity set out a convincing vision for the nation’s future.
In the end, perhaps it will come down to the economy, stupid.