Voting for or against Obama

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, July 10, 2012


Four months before Americans choose their next president, the election has come down to a referendum on Barack Obama. Though the personality weaknesses of candidate Mitt Romney makes this an obvious choice for the Republican Party, the fact that the campaign will be played on Obama’s own court gives the incumbent president a clear advantage. If the national mood turns against the president, Obama will always have the final recourse of trying to convert the election into a choice between unlikeable Romney and likeable Obama.


Elections are won long before people actually vote. The campaign themes and the issues over which voters make their choices result from a political dispute that takes place months before the election. Normally, in good economic times, incumbent presidents try to convert the election into a referendum. Their favourite question is: are you better off today than four years ago? When times are rough, candidates normally present themselves as leaders who can put the country back on the right track. Naturally, bad economic times weaken the chances of an incumbent. Similarly, the inability to convince voters that he can actually get the country back on the right track weakens the privileged position of a challenger in an election held when the economy is struggling.


When a candidate's platform includes unpopular or controversial issues, the obvious strategy is to focus the campaign on personality traits and hide the contentious issues. In 2000, despite embracing unpopular positions on key issues, George W. Bush was well-liked as a person. That allowed him to stand firm on his unpopular beliefs without losing support among moderate voters in key states. In the end, Bush lost the popular vote, but won the electorate college because he carried a sufficient number of critical states.


Conversely, when a candidate's platform includes popular issues, the nominee makes every effort to remind voters of policy differences between the candidates. Republicans normally distinguish themselves from Democrats on tax cuts. Cutting taxes is always popular. To minimize the damage, Democrats normally offer tax cuts for working families and tax increases for the wealthy to adequately fund government expenditures. Democrats always remind voters that Republicans oppose more tolerant views on social and moral issues. Because Americans tend to favour tolerance, Republicans normally try to hide their unpopular views on social issues.


As the 2012 campaign begins, the candidates and their parties are taking their strategic positions to the battlefield. The economic difficulties make the focus on retrospective considerations an obvious choice for the Republican Party. However, the complications that Romney has faced as a candidate leave the Republican Party with few alternatives. Romney will not win if the election turns out to be a personality contest between Obama and his opponent. Because his own professional experience puts him at a distance of the typical middle class American, Romney will find it difficult to transform the election into a curriculum vitae contest. Despite having an admittedly unusual upbringing and going through some complicated periods in his young life, Barack Obama appears as a candidate much closer to the typical American than his Republican rival.


Obama would prefer to make the election into a personality contest between himself and Romney. Americans tend to like him. Even many of those who disapprove of his performance believe the president is a likeable and well-intended person. After four years as president, Obama also has a more impressive — and less controversial — résumé than his opponent. However, the President cannot choose the battlefield for this contest. He has to accept that Americans will most likely vote as if the November election were a referendum on his four-year term.


If things evolve negatively for the president, Obama can always use the last few weeks of the campaign to recast the race into a personality contest. Republicans stand little chance of winning if the race evolves toward a contest of which candidate is better liked by Americans. The speaker of the House John Boehner put it bluntly at a fundraising event on June 30 in West Virginia. As reported in Roll Call, a Washington DC newspaper specialized in national politics, Bohner responded to a woman who asked him “can you make me love Mitt Romney?” After explaining that politicians are not necessarily to be loved, Boehner improvised the following reflection: “I’ll tell you this: 95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November are going to show up in that voting booth, and they are going to vote for or against Barack Obama.”


As the campaign gets under way, the race will get more competitive. Romney will close in on Obama. The Republican candidate has already caught up on fundraising with Obama. The Supreme Court decision on Obamacare has emboldened Republicans who were deeply disappointed by the decision favorable to Obama. Obama might indeed lose if the election turns into a referendum on his first term. However, Obama will always have that last opportunity to turn the election into a personality contest. That is where he has the biggest advantage.