Choice Election? You’re Doing It Wrong

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“Elections are about choices,” writes Mitt Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades in a new campaign memo that claims to outline “the stark contrast facing voters in this election.” But the text that follows makes a lengthy case against the President and his tenure, while barely mentioning the Republican candidate at all. In other words, it describes a referendum election–where voters are asked to make their decision by sizing up the incumbent–not one of choice, where an equally aggressive case is made for the challenger. 

I’ve included the full text of the memo below with every comment about Obama, his term and his campaign highlighted in blue, and every comment about Romney, his record and his policies highlighted in red. As you can tell from even a cursory glance, it’s not even close:

To:                  Interested Parties

From:              Matt Rhoades, Campaign Manager
Subject: An Incumbent With No Rationale For Candidacy
Date:               April 27, 2012

Elections are about choices.

This past week previewed the stark contrast facing voters in this election. Governor Romney’s speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire contained a crisp and specific critique of President Obama’s policy failures and his own positive vision for a better America.

The speech left the Obama campaign sputtering – with even David Axelrod offering praise. In fifteen minutes, Governor Romney dismantled the myths of “hope and change” with the reality of a failed record that even the President and his campaign are struggling to defend.

President Obama’s stagnant, government-centered economy has depressed growth and the American spirit of natural optimism. At a time when a campaign just emerging from a long primary should be struggling, Governor Romney has rapidly unified support and begun to capture the imagination of the country with his vision of a pro-growth economy that will lift us out of the Obama doldrums. It was a big speech to mark a big win that begins a big debate about big things.

President Obama, on the other hand, spent the week slow-jamming the news, striking a Heisman pose, and trying to pick a fight over student loans to help the one-in-two recent college graduates who are either jobless or underemployed as a result of his policies (which is apparently really funny stuff to the President). Unfortunately for him, Republicans agree with the need for a temporary extension, but want it paid for by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. So instead of the fight he was hoping for, he got a debate over taxes and spending – which he wasn’t hoping for.

But changing a presidential schedule is not easy, so Obama pressed on anyway with “official” events to attack his political opponents in swing states with target voters 18-29 years of age that he did well with in 2008 but whose support is waning in 2012. His campaign team then announced in a hastily-arranged Wednesday night conference call that his re-election campaign would begin on May 5th (as if the President hasn’t been campaigning for re-election non-stop for a year now).

In making this announcement, the Chicago crowd was consistent with what has been a remarkably flailing campaign with no discernible rationale for candidacy. We now know that only one campaign is going to run on President Obama’s record of the past three-and-a-half years in office – and it’s not the Obama campaign. Without the ability to run on a record of achievement, the incumbent is reduced to a campaign based on scattershot attacks on Governor Romney in particular and Republicans in general.

The Obama campaign is like one of those gyrating, intermittent lawn sprinklers, spewing out attacks in seemingly random directions, hoping to get somebody wet somewhere but hoping even more to talk about anything but the unemployment rate, federal debt, gas prices, or rising health insurance premiums.

In his New Hampshire remarks, Governor Romney dubbed this a campaign of “diversions, distortions and distractions” but noted it wouldn’t work. “It’s still about the economy – and we’re not stupid.”

The Obama campaign’s calculation is understandable, given the current polling data:

  • The president’s job approval remains mired below 50%. (46% – Fox News Poll, April 22-24)
  • Most Americans believe the country is still in a recession. (83% – Fox News Poll, April 22-24)
  • People strongly think the country is moving in the wrong direction.  (59% – NBC News/WSJ Poll, April 13-17)
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe Obama’s policies have either hurt economic conditions in the country or had no impact. (63% – NBC News/WSJ Poll, April 13-17)
  • Less than one-third of Americans believe that if President Obama is re-elected, economic conditions in the country will be helped. (31% – NBC News/WSJ Poll, April 13-17)

But this is not just about statistics. As Governor Romney said in New Hampshire, “Is it easier to make ends meet? Is it easier to sell your home or buy a new one? Have you saved what you needed for retirement? Are you making more in your job? Do you have a better chance to get a better job? Do you pay less at the pump?”

Voters have grown disenchanted with President Obama’s policies and fear what he would do in a second term. Sensing this, the President’s re-election campaign avoids defending their stimulus and health care bills and refuses to say what a second Obama-Biden term would mean in terms of the policies they’d offer. (There should be a reward for anyone who can find an agenda for Obama’s second term.)

So the general election begins with a bang on one side and a whimper on the other. One side has a clear rationale for running for president, while the other has no discernible message or agenda. Governor Romney and his campaign seek to make this election about big choices affecting our future, while President Obama and his team want to make it a very small election about dogs, tax returns and his winning TV persona.

Of course, this election will be decided by adults casting ballots in their precincts, not teenagers texting votes from in front of their television sets. That apparently frightens the President and his advisors right now.

The entirety of what this tells us about Romney is that he has “a positive vision for a better America,” he’s “captur[ing] the imagination of the country with his vision of a pro-growth economy,” and he wants the election to be about “big choices affecting our future.” The pretense that this is a case against a referendum election is so thin, Rhoades actually flat out states that Romney is running against Obama’s record: “We now know that only one campaign is going to run on President Obama’s record of the past three-and-a-half years in office,” he writes. “And it’s not the Obama campaign.”

None of this is to say that Romney doesn’t have a positive case to make for himself–“the guy who saved the Olympics can save Washington” is a nice story–but even that jibes with the notion that Obama’s failures on the economy are the impetus for Romney’s candidacy. Republicans’ best chance in November is a referendum on the economy in which voters blame Obama, and there’s plenty of work to do on that front. Why pretend otherwise?