The following is an analysis of each candidate and his best strategy for winning the nomination. Voters receptive to Republican candidates in a presidential race are interested in three factors: conservatism, electability, and rhetorical skill. Voters receptive to Democrats are chiefly interested in moderation rather than liberalism, since liberals form a smaller percentage of the Democratic base. Rhetorical skill chiefly deals with a candidate's ability to communicate and control a debate, interview, or townhall appearance; the ability to deliver a good speech is also useful. A diligent candidate may be able to increase his perceived possession of these attributes, but it is difficult.
Democratic Ticket (Incumbent)
- As the incumbent president, Obama is the "default" option. The most basic question--whether Obama is qualified and capable of being president--has already been litigated.
- Voters generally approve of Obama's handling of foreign policy and national security: Preventing terrorist attacks, the strike against Osama bin Laden, avoiding a quagmire in Libya, disengaging from rather than engaging in wars, etc.
- No longer the historic candidate of 2008, Obama is still the first black president. Turnout among black voters will be elevated. Obama supporters will continue to dismiss all criticism as racist.
- Though the economy is stagnant, Obama can at least claim it is not in the state of free-fall that it was when he first took office.
- For most voters, the economy of the last four years has been the worst of their lives. Obama has not been able to produce any "signal achievements" for which he can get credit for repairing the economy.
- Much of Obama's liberal agenda (cap and trade, tax increases on the rich, etc.) was proposed, but failed to pass. This disappointed voters on the left, while simultaneously alienating voters on the right.
- Obamacare, Obama's most famous legislative accomplishment, proved to be enduringly unpopular. The constitutionality of the individual mandate was upheld, but only by characterizing it as a tax.
- The eloquence and novelty that gave Obama his win in 2008 has largely been sapped by time.
Obama must focus on making his challenger, Mitt Romney, appear unacceptable to voters. Obama can tout some achievements, reminding voters of his foreign policy accomplishments and how the economy was pulled from the brink of disaster. But voters are generally dissatisfied with the status quo and the direction of the country. Therefore, it's not enough for Obama to run for reelection on his record alone. Instead, he must present a negative enough picture of Romney so that voters return to Obama as the safe, "default" choice.
Since Obama is already president, he is innoculated from basic questions about his qualifications and character. Romney, on the other hand, is not. It will be difficult for Obama to paint Romney as unqualified for the presidency, since Romney appears to be intelligent and experienced. But Obama can help alienate Romney from voters by having his surrogates bring up every negative aspect about Romney and his history.
Since voters generally hold a disliking for former president George W. Bush, Obama can challenge Romney by demanding to know how he will be different from Bush. If Romney cannot contrast himself with Bush, he will be tarred by association. At the same time, Romney may fear contrasting himself with Bush will alienate the right; Romney may also have difficulty finding areas of disagreement with Bush.
If Romney gives Obama an opening, Obama should also characterize Romney as a hawk. Since Americans are currently in "dove" mode, they will be frightened by any possibility of war, particularly involving ground troops. Obama should question whether Romney is committed to taking America into a war against Iran to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Since Romney has so far taken a hawkish stance on Iran, it may be possible to prompt Romney into making a hawkish gaffe.
Obama should also demonize Romney's business activities from his tenure at Bain Capital, by pointing to every business failure and every instance where ordinary workers were treated unfairly. Though Romney may be able to defend what he did at Bain overall, some of the negativity will stick. Obama's job is to throw as much dirt on Romney as possible, hoping the composite effect is enough to render Romney a distasteful figure in voters' eyes.
- Realizing that the economy is likely to be voters' main concern in 2012, and with a long career in business, Romney has focused his campaign and cultivated the image of a business expert.
- Romney looks and sounds like a president. He appears intelligent and well-informed.
- Romney's campaign staff is well-organized and well-financed. Romney appears to be much more determined to win than most Republican presidential candidates.
- Understanding the importance of debates, Romney has put in the effort necessary to become an effective debater.
- The Romney family's prominence in the Mormon community dates back to the early years of the religion. Many Mormons believe the election of a Mormon president would be a unique opportunity to raise awareness and acceptance of their faith. Their enthusiastic support may give Romney a boost in some Western swing states.
- Though competent, Romney tends to lack the passion, sincerity, and charisma that energizes voters.
- Romney's privileged background makes him vulnerable to criticism that he is out of touch with the common man.
- Romney's history of changing his political positions will add to his burden of explaining where he stands on the issues.
- Many voters find tenants of the Mormon faith baffling or offensive. It is unclear how their concerns about Romney's religion will impact the election.
Romney must persuade voters that Barack Obama handled the economy poorly, and that he will do a better job. Romney can point to areas of weakness in the economy and how they negatively affect the average American. In doing so, he will also deflect one of his main weaknesses--the idea that he is out of touch with the common man. Romney claims to be an expert on business and the economy, and he must demonstrate this by providing specific prescriptions on how he will fix the problems he identifies. The more specific (rather than generalized and trite) his solutions, the more convincing his expertise will appear.
Since the economy is Romney's strength and Obama's weakness, Romney must control the narrative and focus the campaign on the issue of the economy. This will not always be easy. Despite voters' concern about the economy, and despite its importance to them, the economy is a dry topic. Voters will be easily distracted by other issues as they come up.
Romney's campaign will be harmed if the subject changes to social issues or foreign policy. Social issues will tend to divide the independent, centrist voters Romney will need in order to defeat an incumbent president. Most voters express confidence in Obama's handling of foreign policy, and they are reluctant to make any drastic changes. Romney should avoid appearing as a hawk, since voters do not want to intervene in any more foreign countries--unless the intervention is resolved successfully prior to the election.
Since voters think little of former president George W. Bush, Romney will also need to demonstrate that he intends to take the country in a new direction with his own "fixes" to the economy, rather than simply returning to Bush's policies.