With less than a week to go, this close election comes down to a tug of war between big narratives, where the pulling is done by the Obama and Romney closing teams. In the last election, team Obama had a vast network of volunteers marching door-to-door on the logic that undecided voters tend to be convinced by an actual encounter with a human being. This was contrasted by the GOP strategy of trying to sway voters with a minimum of 3 robocall “contacts” in the last 72 hours. Ultimately, though, what these closing teams are pushing–either through recorded calls or a knock at the front door–is a closing argument.
What are those closing arguments?
It is easy to get lost in the media maelstrom at this point. Too much time watching cable TV would convince anyone this is an election about what really happened in Benghazi versus whether or not Mitt Romney will admit that he wants to de-fund FEMA. In fact, neither of those cable news topics are the closing arguments of this election.
Both closing arguments have a spoken and unspoken aspect. It is important to consider both because it helps us to see why this election is so close–why last-minute voting decisions are leaning in one direction or the other.
Romney’s unspoken argument is: Obama wastes money. There are many, many, ways Romney has tried to invoke this argument, many spoken arguments that all support this one overarching unspoken big story.
In attempt to connect with voters, Romney has argued that Obama has spent huge amounts of federal revenue–and yet (so Romney’s argument goes), the economy has gotten worse at every step (which is a lie, but…). For people worried about healthcare, Romney has said that Obama has wasted money on healthcare reform. For people skeptical about climate change, Romney has said Obama has wasted money investing in green tech startups. For people worried about their manufacturing jobs, Romney has said that Obama has wasted money helping companies outsource jobs to China.
Voters have heard Romney in different ways. Some have heard him say that Obama is wasting money, meaning wasting time (i.e., I need help now, Obama is wasting time by spending money on things that have not helped me). Others have heard Romney say that Obama is wasting their money, specifically (i.e., I am doing fine, but want to be doing better, Obama has spent my taxes on things I do not support). There are ugly versions of all these, invoking race, gender, fear of foreigners, resentment towards urban dwellers, and so forth.
Given his unspoken big argument and his many ways of invoking it, Romney has–curiously–chosen a closing argument that spreads fear of Obama wasting money and in collusion with foreigners. Romney’s misinformation campaign about various aspects of the auto industry abandoning Ohio to move all manufacturing to China is an all-in closing argument that attempts to tie an image of a spendthrift president so out of control that he has tossed his hat in with America’s biggest foreign economic challenger.
If I had to paraphrase Romney’s closing argument in one sentence it would be something like this: Obama’s spending is so out of control it has become treasonous.
It’s outrageous, it stands on mountain of misinformation, but it is Romney’s end game narrative and it is persuading enough people to keep the race close.
Obama’s unspoken argument at the end of the election has been: Our approach is working, continue to stand with us.
Interestingly, in order to invoke this big argument, the Obama campaign has used smaller stories about the ways Romney would derail the recovery and the ways Romney’s approach to the economy would not have worked in the first place. If you are concerned about a manufacturing job, the Obama campaign has reached out by showing how destructive Romney’s past at Bain has been to working communities. If your main concern is access to healthcare, the Obama administration has demonstrated how devastating it would be if Romney were allowed to repeal Obamacare. If your main concern is covering family expenses, the Obama campaign has emphasized how much Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy at the expense of the Middle Class. These arguments, too, have had racial, gendered, and ethnic variations.
In particular, the Obama campaign has emphasized how out of touch the Romney campaign is with the important role women play in the economy.
Not surprisingly, given that Ohio is again a key battleground state, the Obama closing argument has emphasized how callous and destructive Romney’s economic policies would be to working families–the “Let Detroit go Bankrupt” meme. It is a logic choice, and it has worked.
Why is Obama’s closing narrative better than Romney’s”
This is a very subjective reading, but my sense is that Romney is weaker in the end because he has chosen to emphasize pessimism in an election where people are looking for optimism.
Where Obama is going around telling people that he believes in the capacity of the American spirit, the value of American manufacturing, the strength of our communities, and so forth–Romney is going around spinning conspiracy theories based on a nefarious side of President Obama that only exists in Mitt Romney’s ads and robocalls.
For voters who are paralyzed by fear already, Romney’s approach will work. But for voters sincerely still mulling over their options–of which there are far more than most of us allow–I suspect Obama’s optimism at the end is working better.
And this is where Obama’s approach to Sandy has fit in well with the closing phase of the election.
From a narrative standpoint, hurricane Sandy allowed President Obama to set a positive tone in the final stretch of the campaign. Yes, Romney lied about Chrysler. Yes, the amount of mudslinging has been unprecedented. But in a time of crisis, Americans pull together, stand arm in arm, and truly believe that we can get rise from a crisis stronger than we were before.
And there is President Obama as the symbol of that narrative.
Do not get confused, here: the vast majority of voters are no longer being pushed in one direction or another by the closing arguments in the election. May people simply reject the President’s leadership after Sandy as opportunism. But those voters decided months, if not years ago that they were voting for Mitt Romney. The challenge is to see this last week from the perspective of that small, but important pocket of voters who are still weighing their options.
Ultimately, then, I give the advantage to Obama in the final week. I believe the swing state aggregate polling will show a solid advantage for Obama by Monday and that the big story going into election morning will be that the Obama campaign has managed to pull within the margin of error in Florida.
Optimism in uncertain times makes the difference in the end.