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.