Friday, September 7, 2012

Small Bounce for Romney?

In the wake of the Republican convention, very few polls have been released. This appears to be due to the close proximity of the Democratic convention; pollsters may be reluctant to poll until after both conventions are over, rather than conducting polls that could be obsoleted by a Democratic convention bounce. However, the polls that have been taken have suggested Mitt Romney got a small bounce from his convention. Please see the Polls page for a list of all recent national polls.

Only three pollsters have polled since the Republican convention: Rasmussen and Gallup, which do daily tracking polls, and CNN/Opinion Research. In judging whether a bounce has been achieved, it might be tempted to simply take one poll immediately before the convention and compare it to a poll afterward. But this runs into the standard problem of polls having a margin of error. Averaging polls is always necessary for accuracy. The following are polls taken after the convention:

09/06 R+0 Obama 48, Romney 45 (Gallup*)
09/06 R+1 Obama 45, Romney 46 (Rasmussen)
09/03 R+0 Obama 48, Romney 48 (CNN/Opinion Research)

With the adjustment made for Gallup using registered voters instead of likely voters, the average is a Romney lead of 0.3 points. Now we will look at polls taken just prior to the convention, from the same pollsters.

08/25 R+3 Obama 46, Romney 46 (Gallup*)
08/25 D+2 Obama 47, Romney 45 (Rasmussen)
08/23 D+2 Obama 49, Romney 47 (CNN/Opinion Research)

The average before the convention was an Obama advantage of 0.3 points. Comparing the two, Romney's bounce was 0.6 points--a very small bounce. Though it's better than nothing, the Romney campaign should be disappointed by seeing so little movement in the polls, even though part of the Rasmussen and Gallup polls were taken during the Democratic convention.

Still, the best polling will be taken out of the shadow of both conventions, during the week of September 17th, when both bounces will have subsided and the standing of both candidates will be more clear.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

2012 Election in Review: August 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the general election during the previous month. Follow these links to read recaps from the Republican primary and general election: May 2011, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January 2012, February, March, April June, July.

August continued the lazy summer trend of inactivity in the presidential race until about midway through, when Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan for vice president on August 11th. The choice inspired a mix of reactions from seasoned political observers; Ryan carried serious baggage in the form of his unpopular "Ryan Plan", while not having a natural constituency that he would bring with him, as other "risky" picks would have.

But in the wake of the Ryan selection, Barack Obama's campaign utterly failed to inflict damage upon the Republican ticket. Instead, the Romney/Ryan campaign launched a preemptive counter-attack on Medicare, accusing Obamacare of raiding hundreds of billions of dollars from the program.

Heading toward the convention at the end of the month, the Republican ticket appeared to be energized. However, the national election polls showed that the race continued to be a dead-heat, essentially unchanged all summer.

The Republican National Convention was held in the final week of August. By all accounts, the convention appeared to be a success. It's unlikely Romney could have delivered a better speech than the one he gave, and there were no mishaps. Nevertheless, the true test of a convention's success is whether and to what degree a candidate receives a bounce in the polls. With no post-convention polling available until next week, the outcome is an open question.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Republican Convention Held: What Next?

Previously we wrote about Mitt Romney's opportunities to present a positive image of himself. Since most voters had little familiarity with Romney, it was very important for Romney to have a positive campaign that gave voters reasons to vote for him, as opposed to merely voting against Barack Obama. In addition to positive ads, Romney's major opportunities were the Republican Convention and the debates in October, should he do well at those.

Now that the Republican Convention is over, how can we determine its impact? By all accounts, the participants (particularly Ann Romney and Mitt himself) gave good performances. They were able to humanize Romney and introduce him as a personality to voters who didn't know who he was. For most voters, Romney's convention speech was the first time they had seen a Romney speech, and it was probably the best he had ever given. But did it make a difference?

At last, polling will begin to provide very valuable information about the candidates' respective chances of winning the election. If Romney's convention achieved its goals, Romney should see his numbers go up in the polls. Obama does not have an equivalent opportunity to get a "bounce" from his own convention, since voters are already familiar with him. They may even have difficulty watching the speeches if they are the cool, sarcastic attacks on Romney that most observers expect.

It's likely that there will be a battery of polls being released early next week, just as the Democrats' convention is being held. If Romney does not register a bounce in those polls, his battle to win the White House will be more uphill than expected. Then, the week after the Democratic convention, polls should indicate whether the Democrats succeeded in wiping out Romney's bounce. And the week after that, with both potential "bounces" having a chance to subside, we should get a clearer picture as to where the candidates stand, going into the debates.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Obama Campagin Drops the Ball on Medicare

After Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate, Barack Obama's campaign strategy was clear: Demonize Ryan by publicizing the unpopular elements of the Ryan Plan and accuse
Romney/Ryan of attempting to cut Medicare. Obama's campaign was aware of the importance of this strategy ever since the possibility of a Ryan VP selection first arose, some months ago.

However, Obama has so far failed to effectively execute it. Instead, the Romney campaign opened up with a preemptive counter-attack, criticizing Obamacare for cutting some $700 billion from Medicare. The technical details of how Obamacare shuffles money around (including from Medicare) to pay for various additional and replacement programs are obscure. Do voters truly fear a Democratic president (one attacked as a liberal, no less) will cut Medicare? No. But the advantages of Ryan's preemptive attack are significant: Obamacare is unpopular, and it's much easier to articulate "Obamacare cuts $700 billion from Medicare" than to articulate the explanation for why this isn't the case.

More importantly, the Romney campaign does not need to convince voters that Obama wants to cut Medicare; they only need to fight Obama to a draw on the issue. If "Mediscare" is a draw between the Republican and the Democrat, it is the same as a victory for the Republican, since Medicare is a Ryan weakness and traditionally a Democratic strength. As an analogy, imagine if Obama were able to fight Romney to a draw on the issue of the economy. Certainly that "draw" would be a victory for Obama.

Why did the Obama campaign find itself so flat-footed on an obvious issue? Part of the explanation must be that they did not see Ryan as a serious VP possibility. They may have already begun opposition research and negative ads centered around more likely picks, such as Rob Portman, Tim Pawlenty, or even Marco Rubio. When Ryan was chosen, it came as a surprise, and they were caught unprepared.

Even so, the element of surprise cannot entirely account for how badly Obama fumbled. The Obama campaign, relative to the Romney/Ryan campaign, is less capable than it first appeared. Elephant Watcher has recalculated the odds and determined that Obama's odds of winning the presidency have diminished slightly.

Should Romney be celebrating a victory? Not yet. Even when a line of attack is botched or effectively countered, it can still reappear later on, when the stakes are higher. For example, the attacks against Bain Capital appeared ineffective when they were first launched earlier this summer, but they returned. The Ryan Plan and "Mediscare" are bound to return later in the campaign.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Romney Chooses Paul Ryan for VP

Mitt Romney announced today that he had chosen his vice presidential running mate: Paul Ryan, the U.S. House member from Wisconsin and current chairman of the House Budget Committee. The selection of Ryan came as a surprise to most observers. While Ryan had some supporters, most viewed Tim Pawlenty or Rob Portman as more likely choices. Recall that just yesterday, Intrade gave Ryan a less than 15% chance of being picked, while Portman was at 34.9% and Pawlenty was at 20%. After Intrade confidently, wrongly predicted that Obamacare's individual mandate would be overruled by the Supreme Court, one must continue to be skeptical about Intrade's ability to predict "secret" decisions.

In previous examinations of the VP decision-making process, we noted two popular theories: The first was the "first do no harm" theory that a "safe" choice should be made because a VP can hurt but not really help a ticket. The second theory is that a VP can help by broadening the appeal of the ticket.

The Ryan decision is perplexing in some ways, because he seems to be the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, he was widely regarded as a "risky" pick because of the big negative he carries: Ryan is associated with a very unpopular budget plan that involved privatizing Medicare. Indeed, "associated" may be an understatement, since it was known as the "Ryan Plan." Thus, Ryan fails the "do no harm" test. But on the other hand, he doesn't seem to have many qualities that would broaden the appeal of the ticket. Unlike Marco Rubio, who would have appealed to many independents (particularly Hispanics), Ryan would tend, if anything, to alienate independents.

It might also be noted that Ryan is young and looks young, and that his highest elected office is that of a U.S. House member--which does not require winning a state-wide election. However, since Ryan has held that office since 1999, he is less vulnerable to criticisms of being inexperienced, despite being about the same age as Rubio.

So why was Ryan chosen? There are a number of factors that likely weighed heavily in Romney's mind. First, the trial balloons on Romney and Portman earlier this summer fell flat. Second, polls have suggested that Barack Obama has held a slight lead over Romney throughout the race. Such polls are of registered voters rather than likely voters, but perhaps Romney's campaign is as led by the RealClearPolitics average as Intrade is. Also, some very recent polls show Obama with a bigger lead. Putting these two things together, Romney may have been persuaded that he needs a "game changing" VP, just as John McCain concluded four years ago.

Then there are the attributes that favor Ryan. Among Tea Partiers and hardcore conservatives, Ryan is considered a genuine conservative, not a "RINO." No doubt Romney chose Ryan in part to balance the ticket and energize his base. Unlike many on the far right, Ryan is not considered a "kook," but an intelligent and articulate, hard-working legislator. Ryan's youth and energy would also be seen as qualities that help balance the ticket. Though it's unlikely to make much difference, Ryan provides geographic balance as well: He's from Wisconsin, a Midwestern swing state. Finally, Ryan would probably have little difficulty beating Joe Biden in a debate.

The irony of the Ryan selection is that during the Republican primary, Romney went out of his way to avoid appearing too aggressively conservative on fiscal issues. Recall that for a long time, Romney avoided endorsing tax cuts for the rich; he only changed his mind when his campaign appeared vulnerable later on, when he needed to appeal to conservatives. The selection of Ryan is a full embrace of fiscal conservatism, including its most unpopular elements. Yet Romney may have felt that since he already spoke favorably of the Ryan Plan, he was stuck anyway.

Putting it all together, how will Ryan's selection impact the dynamic of the race? On balance, it will hurt Romney. By choosing Ryan, Romney has played directly into Obama's current strategy of class warfare. The Obama campaign can go on the offensive, claiming that a Romney/Ryan victory would result in the end of Medicare. By contrast, Ryan doesn't carry any constituency of his own to counter his downside. Arguably he could help energize the base, but there is historical evidence to suggest that the base turns out anyway, and candidates win the presidency by winning independents. On the surface, it appears Ryan will hurt rather than help with independents.

It will be some time before we can fully determine how a Ryan VP candidacy will play, and how Americans respond to him. For the moment, it is Elephant Watcher's determination that Romney's odds of winning the presidency have declined modestly.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Intrade: Obama Up, Portman Up

Barack Obama has improved slightly on his lead in the Intrade market on the 2012 race since our last review in mid-July. The market gives Obama a 58.8% chance of victory, with Mitt Romney at 41%, for a margin of 17.8 points. Once more, we can see the Intrade market is strongly correlated with the RealClearPolitics average of national polls.

As was the case in our last review, the RCP average gave the Intrade market an odd result, due to the quirks of RCP's methodology. Because RCP puts a big emphasis on using multiple pollsters, as opposed to multiple polls, it is forced to use older polls. For example, as of this writing, the RCP average includes a CBS/NYT poll that ran from July 11th to 16th; some of that data is nearly a month old. Other polls have data from as much as three weeks ago.

In mid-July, Romney was doing worse in the then-current polls, but was doing better on Intrade, because the RCP average at the time didn't have a chance to catch up. By contrast, the Elephant Watcher average of polls puts a greater emphasis on current polling data, even if this means using multiple polls by Gallup and Rasmussen, which are the only firms polling with frequency. Remember, polls are intended to be a "snapshot" of the race as it stands today, not how it stands partly today and partly a month ago.

Meanwhile, as the announcement day approaches, the Intrade market on Romney's VP remains split. But Rob Portman has improved on his lead, to 34.9%. Tim Pawlenty is in second at 20%, while Paul Ryan has jumped to 14.6% and Marco Rubio is stuck at 12%. A lower-tier of potential veeps is clustered in mid-single-digits: John Thune at 5.2% and Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal all at about 4%.

It's curious: Rob Portman is known to have a key weakness in his ties to the George W. Bush administration, and there has been little in the way of "buzz" or trial balloons about him in the media. Yet Portman is consistently at the top of the Intrade VP market. It could be a case of wishful thinking on the part of liberal investors who see Portman as an easy target. But the consistency of Portman's lead must make one wonder whether there is something to it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

2012 Election in Review: July 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the general election during the previous month. Follow these links to read recaps from the Republican primary and general election: May 2011, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January 2012, February, March, April June.

July was another quiet month for the 2012 election. There were no major revelations, scandals, campaign events, debates, etc. There was some speculation that Mitt Romney might name his vice presidential nominee early, perhaps late in July. Instead, Romney remained silent, and the speculation about the identity of Romney's VP will continue into August. As in June, most voters slept through the month of July, paying little attention to the race.

As July opened, Barack Obama enjoyed his best polling numbers thus far. After a slight lead had been held by Romney in late June, the numbers shifted toward Obama. But afterward, the numbers shifted back slightly, stabilizing into a dead heat between the candidates.

Obama renewed his attacks against Bain Capital, focusing on the non-issue of when Romney left the firm--which invited Romney to make some unforced errors. But as with any election news during the summer doldrums, the media soon lost interest; the story was drowned out by coverage of a shooting spree at a movie theater, and the 2012 Olympics.

Combining the unresolved Bain issue and the deadlocked poll numbers, one gets the impression that the race has become a stalemate. However, the race has not yet really begun--and it won't, until the Romney VP announcement and Republican National Convention in August.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mitt Romney's Tax Returns, Part II

In Part I, we discussed how the issue of Mitt Romney's tax returns affected Romney's campaign during the Republican primary. Though there were no "bombshells" in the returns Romney eventually released during the primary, his prior refusal to release any returns created a cloud of suspicion that (temporarily) hurt his campaign. After Romney released some returns, the issue disappeared from the Republican primary. It would have remained a dead issue, but Barack Obama's campaign has been calling on Romney to release additional returns; Obama himself has released his tax returns dating back to the year 2000. For now, Romney refuses to release tax returns earlier than 2010.

How might this issue play out during the general election? An issue like this requires a "driver"--something to keep it in the news or bring it back into the news once it fades. Until Romney releases more returns, there is no "hook" for a story; there's no new information to report on. The Obama campaign can attempt to keep it in the news by repeatedly calling on Romney to release his returns, but that's all. Unless this causes a big change in public opinion, the issue will fade from the headlines, because the repeated calls for disclosure will grow stale in their repetition. For the moment, public opinion is unlikely to change very much because most voters are not yet paying attention to the race.

However, the tax return issue can harm Romney even if it is not kept in the spotlight for a long period of time. Recall the way it played out during the Republican primary: No one mentioned Romney's returns during 2011, and the subject wasn't brought up until January 2012. When the matter was raised by Romney's opponents, it had immediate impact. Romney lost South Carolina by a wide margin and polls showed Romney well behind in Florida. This loss of support wasn't reversed until Romney released some returns. Thus, it's possible for the Obama campaign to set the issue aside for now and still raise it again, closer to the election--in October, for instance.

Rival campaigns aren't the only potential "drivers" for a story like this. Once again, the Republican primary is instructive. It wasn't merely the calls from Romney's opponents that put the issue in the spotlight. Rather, the most serious heat Romney took was when the issue was raised during a Republican primary debate. The debate moderator acted as the driver. The moderator reminded Romney of the fact that Romney's own father, Michigan governor George Romney, was a loud proponent of candidates releasing many years of tax returns. The moderator then asked Romney if he would follow his father's example, and Romney gave a painfully evasive answer.

While it would be awkward for Obama himself to inject "Well Mitt, why don't you release more tax returns?" into a debate, it's easy for a debate moderator to do so. If the moderator is a particularly ardent supporter of Obama's, he might ask repeated follow-up questions to pin down exactly what Romney feels needs to be kept secret. Romney is unlikely to give an answer as weak as the one he gave when this question was raised during the primary debate, but it's difficult for him to give even a well-prepared answer without appearing evasive.

Later in the campaign season, when more people are paying attention, it will be easier for Obama to push the mystery of Romney's tax returns into the spotlight. As we saw with the "birther" controversy, something can remain dormant for awhile and suddenly, unpredictably flare up later if it's unresolved.

In summary, it will be very difficult for Romney to make it to November without releasing his tax returns. The issue can temporarily disappear or grow stale, but reappear more harmfully closer to Election Day. Even if the Obama campaign fails to get voters excited about the issue, an Obama-friendly debate moderator can bring the matter to center stage during one of the crucial debates.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's Tax Returns, Part I

In keeping with the class warfare strategy that sparked an additional round of Bain attacks, Barack Obama's campaign has been calling on Mitt Romney to release his tax returns for the last ten years. So far, Romney has refused, releasing returns for the last two years only. Romney argues that he has released all of the information that's legally required, and that Obama would merely use any additional disclosure as the subject of distortions, distractions, and attacks. However, even some prominent Republicans (albeit including Republicans who arguably never supported Romney in the first place) have called on Romney to release the returns now so that the matter can be put to rest.

Those who followed the Republican primary will recall that Romney's tax returns became an issue back in January of this year. Just prior to the South Carolina primary, some of Romney's rivals demanded that Romney release his tax returns. At the time, Romney had not released any returns; he also had not released any during his run for governor of Massachusetts. Romney's answer was that he was not planning to release any tax returns, but that he might consider doing so later.

The tax return issue hurt Romney badly in South Carolina. Romney appeared evasive, and voters wondered what he was hiding. Granted, such issues are more important in a primary than a general election. In a primary, voters are chiefly concerned with electability--the ability of a candidate to compete in a general election. They don't want any hidden skeletons that will knock their party's nominee out of the race. In a general election, electability is no longer a campaign issue, because voters are choosing a president rather than a candidate. In other words, voters are choosing someone to run the country, not someone to win future votes. Character issues play a role, but they are weighed according to their substance rather than their appearance.

The Romney tax return issue was resolved before the Florida primary. Romney understood his image of electability had taken a beating, so he quickly and quietly released two years of tax returns--the same as other candidates were doing. Contrary to expectation, there were no bombshells. Romney could be criticized for paying a low rate and for using tax shelters, but there was no evidence of anything illegal. The matter was dropped, and Romney went on to win Florida, knocking rival Newt Gingrich out of the race.

Why did anyone care about Romney's tax returns in the first place? Because voters were curious why Romney wasn't releasing them, and their imaginations took flight. The tax return issue is reminiscent of the "birther" controversy that came to a head in the spring of 2011. For more than two years, Obama refused to release his long-form birth certificate. Because the birther issue existed in the realm of conspiracy "kooks," few paid it much attention. It's likely that Obama's refusal to release his birth certificate was a political ploy intended to string along the kooks and trap any unwary Republicans who allowed themselves to be dragged in.

But in 2011, Donald Trump began openly questioning Obama's status as a natural-born citizen. The issue found its way into the mainstream. Obama persisted in his refusal to release his birth certificate, and Obama supporters struggled to explain why. Voters also became curious, because they couldn't think of any logical reason why it shouldn't be released. Their imaginations ran wild, and polls began to show a large percentage of Americans unsure about Obama's birthplace. Obama was therefore forced to release his birth certificate--leaving observers wondering what the big deal was.

Now that Obama has resurrected the tax return issue, how will it affect the general election? We will discuss that in Part II.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mitt Romney's Positive Campaign?

Since Elephant Watcher switched over to general election coverage, we have written numerous posts about potential campaign strategies for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Obama's campaign strategy--both his optimal one and the ones he's tried out so far--revolve around being negative. Since voters are dissatisfied with Obama's presidency, and since it's not possible to make them become satisfied with his presidency by November, Obama's only hope is to destroy Romney and leave voters with no alternative. Obama's potential strategies, therefore, differ only in the methods by which he attacks Romney.

Romney's situation is almost the mirror opposite. Because voters have already decided they disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy, Romney doesn't want to change voters' minds about Obama--and he probably couldn't if he tried. And since Obama is already president, the baseline questions of what kind of president he would be are moot, leaving Romney little incentive to attack Obama's character. Voters are unlikely to shift their opinions about Obama too much in either direction. They have already decided they want change; they just need a credible alternative.

If Romney's task is to present himself as a credible alternative to Obama, how should he go about doing it? First, Romney needs to avoid pitfalls and unforced errors that would disqualify him. Second, Romney needs a positive campaign about himself.

Every campaign involves both positive ads and negative ads. Negative ads are the mudslinging attack ads that can become famous or infamous each election year. Positive ads are the "feel good" ads that a candidate runs about himself to advertise his credentials and positive qualities. It should be no surprise that Obama will focus on creating negative ads about Romney. Romney will to use negative ads too, but he'll also need to put a focus on positive ads.

At present, most voters know little about Romney. His national profile consists of his 2008 and 2012 runs in the Republican presidential primary. But not too many voters actually pay much attention to primary campaigns. They'll note the results of the contests, perhaps, but unless they're in the political party of the primary and their state is hotly contested, they won't see much of the primary campaign itself. For example, only a small percentage of the general election voters casting ballots this November will have watched Romney's performances in the Republican primary debates.

If voters don't know much about Romney, how can they see him as a credible alternative to Obama? They can't. That's what positive ads are for. Note that the big-spending SuperPACs tend to run negative ads rather than positive ones. This means Romney's campaign itself will need to flood the airwaves with positive ads; they can't rely on outside sources. So far they haven't done this. By contrast, both the Obama campaign and his SuperPACs will be able to make an impact with negative ads against Romney. This disparity may be one of the reasons Romney has not achieved a real breakthrough in the national polls thus far.

But there's some good news for Romney. Voters begin paying close attention to the general election campaign beginning with the parties' national conventions, which will start in late August. The Republican national convention will be, in essence, a very big, expensive, highly-watched positive ad for Mitt Romney (and his VP nominee). At the national convention, the opponent will come under some attack, but the conventions tend to be positive. They tell the life story of the candidate and showcase the reasons why he should be president.

Thus, only after the Republican convention will we be able to say that most voters are familiar with Romney. That's when poll numbers will become more telling. In addition, the presidential debates held in October have the potential to serve as positive ads of a sort for the challenger. (If a candidate does poorly, they become like very effective negative ads.) If the challenger is put on the same stage as the incumbent president and he does well, the challenger is basically given free, positive advertising that says "this man is a credible alternative."

It's ironic that an incumbent president would need to go on the offensive, while the challenger is on the defensive in the sense that he needs to build himself up. This isn't always the case, but when the economy is in unusually bad shape and voters want change, that's the position they're in. With the convention and the debates, Romney has two big opportunities to make gains. Since Obama lacks equivalent opportunities, Romney is in better shape than the polls will suggest--until the conventions.