Romney’s New Approach: The Tale of Two Ads

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Mitt Romney has a very tricky problem. He’s running against an incumbent President whose poll numbers have proved resilient in the face of a weak economic recovery. The last few weeks have produced a bit of Republican panic, so his campaign is out with a Bold New Strategy™: Senior Romney adviser Stuart Stevens tells Politico (the official publication for announcing Bold New Strategies™) that the election is now a “referendum on ‘status quo versus change.'” You read that right. Not a choice election or an incumbent referendum, but all of the above. Bold. And the campaign ads Romney is running to accompany this new strategy are bold too, if only in illustrating Romney’s challenge.

Here’s, the first TV spot, which we’ll call the referendum ad.

Household income has been falling under Obama, the narrator says, and the debt has been increasing too, which tells us the President is “failing American families.” Both those trends have a lot to do with the Great Recession, which Romney is implicitly arguing Obama didn’t do enough to reverse. Got it? Obama bad; vote for someone else. The problem for Romney is that a good chunk of voters are still blaming George W. Bush for the bad economy, and these particular examples don’t really help the case that they shouldn’t. Household incomes fell between 2000 and 2008 too, and tax cuts, security spending and a Medicare prescription benefit passed under Bush are significant ongoing contributors to the deficit. (Obama’s policies contributed too, of course: his stimulus package was a large, one-time charge, and while Obamacare reduces the deficit in the first decade, its longer-term costs are tied to the ever-growing price of health care.)

Now let’s take a look at the other ad: the choice one.

“My plan is to help the middle class,” Romney says to the camera before listing his three-point plan. (It used to be 59 points, but that’s hard to explain in 30 seconds.) New policies on trade–“crack down on cheaters like China”–deficits–“gotta balance the budget”– and small business–“tax policies, regulations and health care policies that help”–will produce 12 million jobs over his first term, Romney says. It’s remarkable that Romney is now running on a middle-class economic message because that means he’s essentially fighting on the Obama campaign’s turf, but that 12 million jobs number is the real attention-grabber. Any promise to create a fixed number of jobs represents a political risk. You never know when Europe might blow up in financial crisis or when the dysfunction in Congress might reach critical mass. But under scrutiny, Romney’s number isn’t actually bold at all.

The Washington Post among others have addressed this, but it’s worth updating with the latest numbers. Assuming a very rough estimate of 1 million new jobs per 1% in economic growth, the Fed’s new forecast has the economy adding between 5.5 million and 6.8 million jobs in 2013 and 2014, with the pace quickening in the following years. Moody’s Analytics’ August forecast was slightly sunnier, but roughly in the same range. So Romney’s pledge to create 12 million jobs in four years is on the conservative end of the spectrum. More importantly, that predictive spectrum is based on current policy. In other words, Romney is pledging to preserve the economic status quo. Which sorta makes sense. After all, it seems to be working for Obama.