By Jonathan Martin
Unemployment is over 8 percent. Nearly 60 percent of Americans, according to a new poll, believe the country is on the wrong track. The number of people on food stamps is at a historic high and the median net worth of American families is at a 20-year low.
If it was true that winning elections is mostly a matter of numbers — as some political scientists and campaign operatives like to argue — Barack Obama's reelection as president should be close to a mathematical impossibility. For much of this presidential election cycle, Republicans were counting on precisely this.
But 2012 is proving that politics isn't just about numbers, and some traditional leading indicators look as if they are losing their predictive power.
With Obama holding a narrow but so far sturdy lead over Mitt Romney in polls, many incredulous Republicans sound like the Michael Dukakis character in a 1988 Saturday Night Live skit: "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."
The phenomenon is the result of three powerful factors, according to interviews with some two dozen political veterans from both parties.
The first is a rapidly changing, deeply polarized electorate — one in which external circumstances don't necessarily swing large numbers of voters whose minds are deeply made up — and also one that, on balance, is becoming more Democratic due to demographic trends. In an environment like this, Obama has not seen his political bottom fall out, as happened to George H.W. Bush in 1992, when Al Gore cited a barrage of statistics and taunted, "Everything that should be down is up, and everything that should be up is down."
But a more hardened political landscape also means that — at the margins — candidate skills and attributes matter more than ever.
Obama's durability, according to polling and interviews, is the result of a unique connection with voters as someone who broke racial barriers in 2008, his ability to evade much the blame for the recession and a brutally effective campaign.
Romney's inability to capitalize on trends with the economy and national mood that would normally create a wide opening for a challenger is in large measure a reflection of his own defects as candidate and failure to sell himself to voters, according to these same sources, many of whom are Republicans hoping to beat Obama.
"He came into the general election with a very negative [image] rating and he has not effectively addressed that," said longtime GOP pollster Jan van Lohuizen, who worked for Romney in 2008. "What they've been doing for five months hasn't worked. At some point, they need to come to the conclusion that it's not worked."
"We're running a good campaign so far but we're not running a great campaign," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "We're going to have to run a great campaign to beat this guy."
Below are the three political engines that are helping Obama defy the traditional laws of political gravity:
"The map has changed to give any Democrat the better grip on the electorate," said van Lohuizen.
As more voters, both transients from other states and immigrants, have poured into states like Nevada, Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina, political demographics in these places have been transformed. It's the new Democratic coalition there and in traditional swing states that is bolstering Obama.
"Despite a high unemployment rate, anemic economy, and upside-down right track/wrong track, Obama is being kept afloat by a solid base of support among African-Americans, Hispanics, liberals, single and college-educated women, and union households," said longtime Christian conservative strategist Ralph Reed. "Those groups alone add up to about 46 percent of the electorate."
Plus, Republicans have their own firm conservative base that doesn't move based on exterior conditions. So in this polarized era, there are just more entrenched voters — individuals who don't split their tickets and move from their party loyalties as they did in the past.
"The number of people we're trying to win over is very small," said longtime Republican Don Fierce. "That's what's different from 1980 or other campaigns in the past — there's such a small number that are there to move."
What helps Democrats is that the country's changing face has let them play offense on traditionally Republican turf without having to worry about liberal bulwarks. The population-heavy coastal states Democrats have had a lock on for two decades remain out of reach for Republicans.
Former Democratic Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham, who held statewide office for 26 years, recalled that in 1980, the number of electoral votes that were considered solidly Democratic and Republican were about equal.
"Now, that number is noticeably tilted toward Democrats," Graham said.
The problem for the right is that what Democrats have steadily lost with lower middle-class whites over the years, they've made up for with middle-class and wealthy women — creating a yawning gender gap that puts Republicans at a disadvantage in the very states that now make up the presidential battlegrounds.
"We lost Bubba a long time ago; he's done," said Democrat James Carville of working-class white males. "But what we didn't realize at the time is that we picked up all the post-college white women by the same amount. You walk into any grad school class today, the women are all our voters."
And, Carville added, it's both racial minorities and such working women who are uneasy about some of the nostalgic language Republicans use when it comes to taking back the White House.
"They keep saying they want to restore America — but to a vast number of Americans, they weren't part of that America," he said.
What frustrates Republicans the most, and will surely be Topic A for many in the party if Romney loses, is the party's apparent structural problem with Hispanics — something that is hampering the nominee in Florida and the West.
"Republicans, including Romney, hurt themselves among Hispanic votes in the primary this year," said former Mississippi governor and Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, alluding to the hard line GOP candidates took on immigration. "And you add to that Obama has totally politicized the issue of immigration to the point that he preferred having the issue to having a bill."
Looking past November, Barbour added: "In the future, and not distant future, Republicans have to come to grips with the right policy on immigration."
The incumbent's staying power
In 2008, Obama marketed himself as a global phenomenon, and his political skills were widely described as something almost unworldly in origin. Hardly anyone — not even hard-core Obama loyalists — believes this any longer, after a first term of repeated setbacks and dwindling popularity.
But the fact that Obama has lost some luster shouldn't diminish the fact that he remains in the minds of many voters a historic figure — not just another embattled incumbent.
As the first black president, his most durable strength is with minorities, whose loyalty is largely impervious to external factors like the economy. Minorities have been harder hit by the recession than whites, yet surveys show that they feel better off now than before Obama and are more optimistic about the future than whites.
"This is a huge thing in American history," said Cole, a historian with a doctorate and Native American, about the pride in Obama felt by minorities.
But Obama's sustained support isn't just from loyal African-Americans and Hispanics, it's also from white voters who are themselves proud of what the country did in 2008, retain warm feelings toward the president and his family, and don't want to see them fail. This is not mere white guilt. Swaths of centrist voters believe the president inherited a mess and that George W. Bush and the Republicans are more to blame for the dismal economy than Obama and the Democrats. A CNN poll earlier this month had 62 percent of "moderates" faulting Bush and the GOP and just 30 percent of the centrists blaming Obama and the Democrats. It's clear Obama possesses a measure of goodwill with many voters that doesn't fluctuate with the monthly jobless statistics.
"People like his personality, like his family, like his story and what he says about the country just by having been elected," said longtime Democratic strategist and presidential campaign veteran Bill Carrick. "And I think the other piece is that people really do believe he got dealt a really bad hand of cards. They're willing to give him more of a chance."
Further, Obama benefits from longstanding skepticism about just how much he or any leader is able to turn the country around.
"Expectations are lowered," said one of George W. Bush's most senior advisers. "With the exception of the short period after Obama was elected, there's been a net wrong track since at least 2003 — that's unprecedented and resets expectations."
In the view of seasoned hands in both parties, Obama has also run the better campaign. Since the Dartmouth GOP primary debate in October, when they determined Romney was likely on his way to the Republican nomination, the president's high command has been almost exclusively focused on trying disqualify the former Massachusetts governor. In an effort to pre-empt a pure referendum on the state of the economy, Chicago has spent the past year highlighting Romney's business record, exotic investments and personal lifestyle to cloud what until recently had been Boston's all-jobs-all-the-time message.
"I thought everybody assumed they'd run a very good campaign in 2012 and they have run a very good campaign," said Barbour. "I don't underestimate David Axelrod and the Obama campaign. "They've been very adroit at changing the subject."
At the GOP convention, Barbour summed up the Obama message on Romney in perhaps the most memorable sound bite of the 2012 election: "He's a wealthy plutocrat married to a known equestrian."
Cole, a political strategist before he entered elected office, also offered praise for Chicago.
"They're running a great race, well-conceived and well put together," said the Oklahoman. "You contrast this to George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign. This is really comparable in quality to Karl Rove's campaign for Bush in 2004."
Veterans in both parties cite the summer, when Romney had secured the nomination and was attempting to introduce himself to voters, as the pivotal period in which Obama's taunting of the Republican was most effective.
"They'd say ‘Bain,' or ‘tax returns' or ‘felon' and Romney would scream fire and we'd be talking about it for a week," noted longtime Democratic consultant Joe Trippi.
Cole pointed to Romney's deficit in Ohio as the most vivid example of the damage done to the GOP standard-bearer during the summer.
"If Mitt Romney doesn't win, we'll be reminded that negative ads work and the sooner the better," he said, noting that Romney was financially unable to strike back with full force before the August convention. "They picked a good moment when Romney couldn't respond as effectively as they would have liked. Super PACs are fine but they don't let you establish the case for the candidate like the candidate's own campaign."
The challenger's flaws
Romney's advisers have started coming in for the predictable criticism that's inevitable in a campaign that's losing. But as big an issue is the candidate's own profound weaknesses — he has a résumé that's uniquely vulnerable to attack during difficult economic times and has little in the way of political self-awareness.
"Put any three consultants of either party in a room six years ago and you can't tell me they wouldn't have told him: Get rid of the Swiss bank account," Trippi said. "He just seems impervious to what things sound like or look like and that they make people who otherwise might vote for him very wary."
Beyond his background, Romney also is often his own worst enemy on the stump. Look no further than the video that came out Monday in which Romney is captured at a fundraiser earlier this year telling donors that 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes and are essentially wards of the state. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," he said. It's hard to imagine George W. Bush using such language in any setting, public or private.
What frustrates Republicans about Romney and his campaign is that they knew they had an image problem coming out of the GOP primary and he's been unable to turn it around. An NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll last week in Ohio showed the Republican is still 10 percent "under water" in his favorable and unfavorable rating. And the national CBS/New York Times poll revealed more likely voters indicating "no" than "yes" when asked if they felt Romney understood their needs and problems.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who served as Bush's point man on Capitol Hill in 2000 and does the same for Romney now, said the GOP nominee has a challenge that's "the mirror image" of what Ronald Reagan encountered in 1980.
"People need to become convinced a person can do the job but also be comfortable about having them around for the next four years," Blunt said. "People in '80 were comfortable with Reagan as a person because they knew him but weren't sure about him being president. People think Romney can do the job but are not ready to check that second box yet about whether this is somebody we want to have around in good times and bad for the next four years."
Blunt, who thought Ann Romney's speech was the most important of the convention because it put a warm face on the candidate, said Boston's ability "to round [Romney] out as a person is important. We'll see if they do some more of that."
Asked if he thought they needed to, Blunt didn't hesitate: "Yes, I do."
What Republicans hope is that Romney's difficulties relating to voters will ultimately pale in comparison to the job ahead of the next president. Yet even in making the case that policy matters more than persona, seasoned GOP officials concede Romney is a tough sell.
"He's never had a beer, he's never had a Coca-Cola, he doesn't look natural out there — but I really don't think this is an election cycle [in which] voters will decide based upon whether they can invite Mitt into the living room for a beer," said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), an 18-year congressional veteran. "But he is somebody who you would call if you had a business that was in trouble." (Romney, a Mormon, doesn't drink alcohol but actually will enjoy a Diet Coke, something not barred by his church.)
Asked if his party had nominated somebody with difficulty relating to average Americans, Barbour artfully evaded the question, saying: "That's what he's got to do."
Another former GOP governor, however, was blunter, arguing that Romney's current deficit is explained in part by his personal style.
"He's a rich guy who's also awkward," said the former governor. "That may matter at the margins, but in a tight race, 2 [percent] to 3 percent matters."
This is not to say Romney's strategy has been totally sound.
Florida's Graham called Romney's campaign "inexplicable."
"He seems to have made an effort to run away from his record as governor in Massachusetts when in my judgment, that should have been one of his major strengths," Graham said. "You ask Americans their biggest concerns and after jobs and the economy, they'll start to talk about gridlock and partisanship. And, coming from a Democratic state, he's got an ideal record to talk about that."