With polls now showing a steady trend in favor of the President, the election narrative will undoubtedly converge on a talk of why Romney’s debate bump did not seem to close the deal for him. This is a dangerous time for Democrats because the reality oft the polling trend does not match the reality what actually happens in the final stretch. Depending on who you ask, the GOP final push of robocalls & PAC ads has the ability to drive key districts by 3, 5 or even 6 points in the final 72 hours. A lead is not a lead for Obama unless it can outlast the Karl Rove blitz.
But still, it is worth looking at Mitt Romney’s situation and asking why he is moving away from victory, rather than towards it, again.
Simplest observations are the best, in this case: the more Romney stumps, the less voters like him. With nothing left but the grind of the campaign trail, Romney is now trapped in the situation that sunk him in the primaries and in the first leg of the race against Obama.
To see this better, it may be helpful to break the candidate’s job in the election into three kinds of narrative tasks: stumping (speeches, fundraisers, media spots, etc.), pageantry (conventions, dinners, etc.), and debates.
Of these three categories, everyone always claims Obama is a great speaker, but what they really mean is he excels at pageantry. Obama is very good as a speaker in Conventions and gala fundraisers. At stumping, Obama has been solid, but not great. For most of the campaign, he has not shown enough fire on campaign stops and his media spots, in particular, are often bland. His last two debates have been solid, but nobody is going to teach a class on debating by pulling out Obama as a role model.
Romney is just the opposite. His debate performances have been an oddly effective in the contemporary, media hype environment that defines much of this election. On stage with Obama, Romney’s twitchy, uncomfortable public persona found a home and his rapid-change of positions had the impact of throwing his opponent of his game (at first). At the other two narrative tasks, however, Romney has been atrocious–possible the worst ever. The GOP convention, this year, was a comedy of errors and missteps. And that brings us to Romney’s absurd inability to give a stump speech.
For some reason, Romney has decided that he is supposed to look off-the-cuff and spontaneous, rather than scripted, on the stump–that, somehow, this makes him look “authentic.”
In fact, Romney’s attempts to speak off the cuff on the campaign trail have not produced that desired authenticity for him even once. Instead, it has elicited a string of weird blurbs from Romney that seem to come from either a pocket of Dada word association deep in his subconscious (think “trees are just the right height”) or racism (“Who let the dogs out.”) or just plain contempt for humanity (“47 percent”).
I actually think at this stage that Romney’s handlers are more afraid of what might happen when he goes on the stump than Palin’s people were at this same stage of the game last time out. They probably send him up there, hold their breath, and silently pray that Mitt will not throw the whole thing in the toilet by blurting out some ridiculous sound bite.
Well, the pageantry and the debates are over. All that’s left is the stump.
In other words, it may not just be that Romney’s debate aura has faded, but also that the 10,000 pound anvil of his stumping style is again starting to bear down on his polling trend, particularly in the swing states where he is gracing those votes with the majority of his time.
For those of you keeping score, make note of the next time you hear a news spot or see a headline discussing Romney giving an inspiring or even strong speech in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, or Florida. Then, balance those instances against the number of media spots that either directly or indirectly draw attention to how poorly Romney does on the stump. Therein lies the trend that will never be picked up by any one poll in particular, but is crucial for Romney in the home stretch.
The more he stumps, the more he slumps–that is Mitt’s dilemma. And it’s a pickle.