Mitt Romney isn't losing the election - yet

Despite a narrative emerging of Romney's failure, Obama remains weak on the economy.

A new narrative is taking shape just over 40 days before Election Day: Mitt Romney is losing. That's expected as well as premature, but it's easy to see why so many on the left and right are calling this a wrap.

Romney's polling numbers stayed essentially flat after the Republican convention. Ditto after he picked US Representative and self-styled "fiscal hawk" Paul Ryan as his running mate. Romney looked like an craven opportunist after the ambassador to Libya was killed. And a video showing him despising and dismissing half of America as victims, moochers and ne'er-do-wells inspired one Bloomberg columnist to write this headline: "Today, Mitt Romney Lost the Election."

President Barack Obama, for his part, has enjoyed a steady rise in his favorability ratings since the Democratic convention, a marked turnaround from the last year. Since the DNC, Obama has raised the idea that a second term would mean less intransigence from Congressional Republicans. He told supporters in Wisconsin recently that reelection would "break the fever" of partisanship and that "only you can break the stalemate," according to the LA Times. Wishful thinking perhaps, but not inconceivable if he wins by a landslide.

There is evidence to suggest as much.

Obama is widening his lead swing states like Ohio. Even if Romney wins all the other states won by George W. Bush in 2004, if he loses Ohio, he'll only have 263 Electoral College votes (you need 270 to win).

Moreover, Talking Points Memo's poll tracker shows Obama with 328 Electoral College votes while Romney has 191. He broke 200 for the first time last month, but Obama has remained over 200 for months.

Nate Silver, of the New York Times, gives Romney 228 Electoral College votes, but only a 22 per cent chance of winning. For Obama? Silver gives the president a more than 77 per cent chance. Silver also says the probability that Obama gets 330 Electoral College votes is nearly 17 per cent. That Romney gets 270? Slightly more than zero.

All of which is why conservatives, not for the first time (I have lost track of how many times), are exhibiting a crisis of confidence in Romney. The more that Romney trails Obama in the polls, the more the GOP's radical conservatives want him to take the gloves off. And the more they want him to take the gloves off, the worse it gets for Romney, because middle-of-the-road voters don't like the GOP's radicalism (eg the American Association of Retired Persons booed Paul Ryan for vowing the repeal "Obamacare"). Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, the state Ryan represents, gave voice to the crazies when he said:

I thought [picking Ryan] was a signal that [Romney] was getting serious, he’s getting bold, it’s not necessarily even a frustration over the way Paul Ryan’s been used but rather in the larger context. I just haven’t seen that kind of passion I know Paul has transferred over to our nominee, and I think it’s a little bit of push-back from the folks in the national campaign. But I think for him to win he’s gotta [do] that.

TPM's Josh Marshall summed up the effect:

[T]he drip drip drip of casual disrespect for Romney from supposed supporters and the assumption that he’s a bad candidate who’s destined for defeat is no joke. It sows bad morale, becomes an intra-party distraction and source of conflict and confirms the settling idea that Romney’s a loser.

That makes it harder for Romney to turns things around, Marshall says, but maybe he doesn't want to. "[His campaign] doesn't need a turnaround," he told 60 Minutes over the weekend. "We've got a campaign which is tied with an incumbent president to the United States." He added: "I've got a very effective campaign."

Well, that's debatable given all of the above, but what's more certain is that Romney has a point. He is tied. Despite all the polls showing him behind the president, the two daily tracking polls - Gallup and Rasmussen - show that Romney remains in a tight race with Obama. Both are within the margin of error. Granted, the popular vote, which the tracking polls attempt to measure, is not as important ultimately as Electoral College, but that tightness suggests that all the drama over Romney's losing the race is overblown. And Mitt isn't losing. Yet.

Which shouldn't be surprising. The economy remains Obama's biggest weakness. It is improving, yes, but too slowly to matter by November. Voter suppression, in the name of preventing voter fraud, meanwhile threatens Obama's chances in Pennsylvania and Florida. And Romney has a lot more money than Obama, as do his Super PAC buddies.

This is why the Obama campaign is worried. Not so much because it can't surmount these obstacles, but because voters might become complacent if this new narrative about Romney's losing takes hold.

As Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, recalled saying:

Ignore the polls. There are always going to be polls showing us up. There are always going to be polls showing us down. None of that matters. What matters is your voter contacts in your state.

 

Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt