Mitt’s Not Over Yet

New York Daily News

If voters went to the polls this minute, President Obama would win. Tomorrow? Perhaps.

Six weeks from now? Not so much. Despite the hyperventilating over each and every poll and dramatic pronouncement from the Obama campaign, Mitt Romney enters the home stretch in much better shape politically than they or the media believe.

It won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty, but the objective reality of the campaign is fundamentally different than the political landscape seen through the filter of cable news and online coverage.

If you read the usual horse race coverage of the last few weeks, you’d be convinced that Romney’s campaign had entirely collapsed and that Obama would be safe staying home for the next 45 days and playing a few dozen rounds of golf in the crisp fall air of Washington, D.C.

From the “47%” fund-raiser video to the Libya announcement to Clint Eastwood to Paul Ryan, it seems that every week, the press declares Romney has made a fateful slip that has nailed his campaign in the coffin, once and for all.

After all, the Beltway media “Gang of 500” said so, right?

But these stories from the hermetic world of political media reporters are never quite as deadly as their breathless prose would suggest. Instead, Romney has kept grinding it out, pushing through tough coverage and Team Obama’s increasingly shrill and desperate attacks. He’s a better candidate than the anonymous critics on his own side would suggest, mainly because he has a key attribute many lack: guts.

National polling on the race is a distorted mirror, and even that shows a tie game. Romney and Obama are close to tied in the swing states, and with swing voters.

Plus, there’s this little-noticed problem: Far too many of the public and media polls have set their likely voter screens and models to something looking more optimistic than the 2008 turnout model, which even Obama’s most dedicated partisans think is highly unlikely.

Considering that Obama won a crushing, decisive electoral and popular vote victory in 2008, it’s not surprising he’s kept the Democratic base intact.

But the rest of America figured something out about him: He’s a charming communicator, but a mediocre President. That’s why his job approval, the right-track wrong-track numbers and his ratings on the economy match up with his failed economic record.

Presidents’ final ballot percentages typically run behind their job approval numbers. With his hovering below 50%, Obama has almost no room for error, and the economy is not his ally. He is not, contrary to the belief of some in the press, immune from the laws of political physics.

Add it up: 1% growth, 8% unemployment, $4-per-gallon gas. Record numbers of Americans who have abandoned even looking for work. Record declines in household incomes. Home values still wheezing. The stories of “funemployment” are long passed, and the picture isn’t improving in the minds of most Americans.

Yes, it’s true: In the past few days, there have been a handful of polls showing increased economic optimism.

Obama’s team suggests — rather strenuously, and rather disingenuously — that 8% unemployment is the “new normal,” insisting that Americans give him credit for inheriting an economy beset with headwinds from President George W. Bush.

It’s an argument that has worn thin with the electorate. And with two more jobs reports to come, Obama can pretend that the new normal is just fine, but that doesn’t make the life of a trucker in Racine, Wisc., paying close to $5 a gallon for diesel, feel better.

It doesn’t cushion the shock to a mom in Toledo, when she’s paying much more than she paid two years ago for groceries.

It doesn’t help the middle-manager in the Orlando suburbs accept the fact that his mortgage is underwater and his current job pays 25% less than his last.

These kinds of stories don’t make the daily coverage, but they make up a large, restless and deeply unhappy fraction of the American electorate. Friday’s unemployment numbers, showing jobless rates rising in most of the swing states and frozen in others, adds to Romney’s argument that America needs a new approach to economic growth.

Spin cannot cover the deep, ingrained sense of pessimism that the economy — and the nation — is fundamentally off track. Swing state voters are more typically affected by this than the national surveys reflect, and the “new normal” isn’t cutting it.

In the latest survey by the center-right Resurgent Republic poll, Obama’s approval ratings on the economy among groups he desperately needs to win in the swing states are soft: just 46% overall, 37% with independents and 34% with white, non-college voters.

Chest-thumping “Obama can’t lose” types need to reexamine the basic campaign dynamics.

One area of the economy that will be pumping in the next seven weeks is television. Romney has bought a whole heaping helping of it. Obama’s numbers over the summer and the convention window have been largely driven by spending over $200 million on television, much of it slamming Romney as a heartless bastard boss from Hell.

Some believe that spending will prove definitive, in much the same way the 2004 Bush campaign definitively defined John Kerry. But considering that all the spending only pushed Romney’s favorables down about 5%, that would represent the worst return on investment in media history.

Now is the time when Romney’s media buys are coming into full swing, and voters in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia and elsewhere will begin to see the Republican nominee addressing their economic fears, telling the story of his life and offering an alternative vision for America. If he keeps up the energy and tone he’s shown since the 47% story broke — fast, going right at Obama’s record and philosophy and having some fun with this otherwise agonizing process, the TV ads will reinforce the energy of the campaign in the closing weeks to his benefit.

The crapulous daily gotcha coverage will have a harder time breaking through an avalanche of TV spots.

The post-hoc vision of Obama’s 2008 campaign forgets that by this point, Sen. John McCain was largely broke, off the air in key states and had a campaign in deep trouble.

Romney doesn’t share that fate. Obama isn’t going to have a geriatric punching bag to swing at in the cut-and-thrust of the last seven weeks. He’s in some of the weakest shape of any incumbent President, with unemployment, a soft economy and overseas chaos dragging at his campaign.

And Obama was in an enviable position in 2008: He could (and did) hammer McCain tirelessly over an economic crisis the senator was unprepared to discuss, defend or explain. Back then, the electorate was tired of eight years of Bush; Obama used that fatigue to help sink McCain, relentlessly hitting a message of Bush administration failings on war and the economy.

It was shocking, in some ways, that he didn’t do even better in 2008.

Now, Romney has all the economic ammunition to indict and convict the President on the economy, on Obama’s college-freshman understanding of markets and his eat-the-rich class warfare.

And Obama has to run against his own record of failure. New promises of miracles aren’t going to be as well-received as before. He has to run against what was promised in 2008 and the painful reality of 2012. He has to run against the crushing debt he’s accumulated, his ineffective stimulus and his deeply unpopular health care reform plan.

In 2008, he could rail against the Iraq War, promise to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and confidently claim he would make the world love America because they would love him.

Today, the Middle East is in flames, Iran is four years closer to having a nuclear weapon, our alliance with Israel is frayed, Europe is flirting with financial disaster and Japan and China are flirting with a little war. Our ambassador to Libya was murdered, the administration caught utterly flat-footed.

Don’t be so sure that’s not going to give anxious independent voters a bit of extra pause when they are in a private place with their ballots.

In 2008, Obama was everything to everyone: He was an economic savior, promising millions of green jobs and an industrial revival that would lead the world. He was a fiscal hawk with a heart of gold, promising to cut the deficit in half, all while extending coverage to millions with a brand new health care program. He was a cure for the cancer of partisan division in Washington.

He was a racial healer, a walking salve for the wounds of slavery and Jim Crow. He was the post-American, post-ethnic, post-everything global citizen who would restore our standing after two wars and quiet thousands of years of strife in the Middle East.

He was also sadly unprepared for the job.

Americans now know this. Every day, they see and feel the difference between the promises of 2008 and the stark, grinding pain of an economy gasping for life.

The mechanics of the campaign matter, but the vast distance between the Obama America was promised and the President we got still spell defeat for the Democratic ticket this November.

Mitt Romney may not be the perfect candidate, but he doesn’t have to be. The fundamentals of this election, outside the media bubble, are on his side for a victory in November.

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