The Inflection Point

Watching the final debate, the more I considered Barack Obama’s deplorably non-presidential affect and attitude; his reliance on corny, crudely-made zingers; and his almost pathological string of lies and distortions, the more it struck me that, at some level, he knows this is over. His speeches since then show an edge that belies the old “No Drama Obama” who was going to heal the bitter partisan divisions of the past.

The aura of a losing campaign is unique, and Ross Douthat pegged it today:

Losing campaigns have a certain feel to them: They go negative hard, try out new messaging very late in the game, hype issues that only their core supporters are focused on, and try to turn non-gaffes and minor slip-ups by their opponents into massive, election-turning scandals.

Sound familiar?

Obama senses it, but can’t quite believe it. He seems confused by how easily Romney started punching over his weight class on October 3rd. He seems surprised that the last two debates didn’t drop Governor Romney’s numbers like a rock. He’s frustrated that Romney is a happy warrior now, and it shows. He’s visibly irritable because all the press hits and ads and field work … and so, so much money … haven’t reduced Mitt Romney to dust.

After spending nearly a billion dollars last cycle, and what will be more than a billion this time, Obama must sense the palpably declining political utility of his most familiar tools.

For months, according to Team Obama, there was no path for a Romney victory. The Blue Wall states were immutable, the swing states were susceptible to his women-and-seniors-and-immigrants-and-students mojo. Everything that worked in 2008 would work now. Everything in the hard-hitting Chicago political tool box would be deployed, and by the end Mitt Romney would want to be in the Witness Protection Program.

But now, as the President’s options have narrowed and as the weight of Obama’s failures from the economy to the Libya fiasco come crashing down on his campaign, I’m feeling increasingly optimistic that we’ve passed an inflection point in the campaign where Obama’s familiar tools can’t help him pull off a miracle.

Obama was the candidate of the inevitable, unbeatable wave, not of the grind-it-out, cut-and-thrust of a motivated, funded, and determined GOP and conservative base. Unlike McCain, Mitt Romney’s team won’t get hit and stand there with their jaws hanging down at the ungentlemanly conduct of the other side.

The daily polling — beyond just the head-to-head numbers — shows GOP intensity solidifying, Romney’s favorables growing, and the battleground states becoming smaller in number. There aren’t any swing states showing significant movement away from Romney, but a number are moving to him. Yes, we still need to pick the electoral lock by driving wins in some combination of Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia, but I’d rather be in our shoes than Obama’s.

Romney is drawing astounding crowds at event after event – Denver’s Red Rocks event was at standing-room only and over 25,000 people were turned away. This story is repeated almost daily: Romney is drawing the kind of crowds Barack Obama pulled in 2008. The momentum isn’ta bluff or a headfake; Republicans are lit up in the same way they were in 2010. It’s happening in Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and all the battleground states.

Obama is largely reduced to trawling college campuses for political jailbait, stroking the shreds of his coalition in the increasingly desperate hope of getting at least a few salvageable video clips out of each day. Big Bird, binders, and bayonets don’t comprise a sweeping vision of a second Obama term and it shows. Vice-President Malaprop wanders Ohio diners, touching people’s food and getting biker chicks to sit in his lap. It’s a campaign in trouble, and they know it.

What happened to the vaunted Obama ground game? It was easy to believe in 2008 that Obama’s ground game won the race. But by then, McCain was broke and dispirited, and the GOP base was shattered. Today, GOP early voting numbers and absentee votes are far ahead of 2008 in the key swing states. The RNC’s Rick Wiley outlined it well this morning. We’re in the game– and in most states, well ahead of it –and in the early going, the Obama magic isn’t inspiring the massive,one-sided presence of 2008.

What were once silver-bullet opposition research hits have become black holes where Obama’s cash goes to die: Bain, 47%, Massachusetts, tax returns, the Haircut of Intolerance, and Romney’s gaffes came and went.

Stories that would have stretched for weeks now last days (at best) and issues that the media could have confidently turned into defining moments now burst like soap bubbles. Declarations that “Story X is, categorically and undeniably, absolutely, positively the end of Mitt Romney” are stacked deep in this campaign. Our unmediated world makes it less likely that the proverbial narrative is set solely by the Gang of 500.

The Obama campaign and their allies in the advocacy segment of the media pushed hit after hit to disqualify Romney, consuming countless electrons, and racking up a pricetag of hundreds of millions of dollars for the paid media portion. Say it with me: “Worst return on investment, ever.” I shouldn’t say this, but paid advertising in the traditional segment – broadcast television – is slipping in ROI, even at record levels of saturation.

Fantasy-based policy promises have also stopped moving voters. In 2008, “Hope” and “Change” and “millions of new, high-paying green jobs” were met with acclaim; the new promises of Obama’s shrinking, diminished portfolio of ideas fit in a thin booklet – hilariously and unintentionally described by Glenn Thrush of Politico as “a detailed, bullet-point plan for his second term”– that sank without a trace in less than 24 hours (and spent most of that time being actively mocked).

The agenda-setting function of polling also declined this cycle. The presence of outside analysis from smart, credible folks who take the time to drill into the weighting, cross tabs, and sample composition have radically altered polling stories that would have once set GOP voters into a terminal funk. (For clear perspective, I commend @numbersmuncher, @adrian_gray, @seantrende and @jaycosttws to your Twitter attention.)

Think about 2008: as wave after wave of negative polling hit McCain, the story became more and more inevitable. Almost nobody ran a second-day story analyzing a survey. The social media pushback channel was marginal and, relative to Twitter, slow. Today, it’s wired into the DNA of the campaign. Pushback is instant and overwhelming.

Hollywood endorsements once added to Obama’s aura of glamour and celebrity. Remember this absurdity of actors taking a blood oath to serve Barack Obama for the Ten Thousand Years of His Reign? Actors, rappers, athletes — especially Oprah — all bought Obama valuable, sometimes intense, news coverage. Now, he drags a few credulous press mentions out of his Jay-Z and Katy Perry media hits … but the people who would be moved now by a celebrity suck-up are already Obama voters.

Mediscare and its constellation of rhetorical tropes (Granny in the snowbank, seniors eating cat food, etc., ad nauseum) were also shown the door this year, as Democrats tried again and again to make the Ryan plan a wedge to frighten seniors. It failed in places like Florida because Obamacare is real, looming and terrifying to seniors. It offset the Medicare fear campaign that left the GOP running like scalded dogs from entitlement reform for decades.

Obama’s long-running pattern of hitting his opponents with damaging, mysteriously acquired or unsealed court records seems to have fizzled today with the failed Gloria Allred smear, but the Obama team still has a few stinkers in the drawer… for all the good it will do them.

Of course, these and other last-minute oppo drops are coming, as are shock polls, or doom-and-gloom negative ads, gotcha media stories and every other kind of distraction, but they won’t change the election as they might have in 2008 or in Obama’s previous campaigns.

It won’t stop Obama from trying…but it won’t stop him from losing, either.

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  1. Wylee Coyote
    wmartin: Does anyone think that Richard Mourdock is going to have a negative impact on Romney/Ryan with affluent white suburbanites (states like Pennsylvania/Michigan/Colorado,etc).

    No.  Todd Akin didn’t seem to drag Romney down at all, despite the media hammering on it forever, and a roiling controversy among Republicans whether Akin should stand down, and the fact that Mitt Romney was still largely undefined in the public mind at that point.

    Mourdock won’t help, certainly, but his comments were less offensive than Akin’s, he seems to have little direct connection to Romney, and Mourdock has already apologized and clarified his remarks. 

    Yes, the Dems will pound the table about it – what else have they got? – but anyone who would have been turned off to Republicans by this stuff was lost to Romney long ago.

  2. The King Prawn

    There’s still the 47%, or at least the true sentiment behind the poorly made remark. Many are still convinced that their best interest lies with  whoever promises the most of others’ property. But, yes, it does look more and more likely that we’re leaning less severely over the edge of that abyss.

  3. DocJay

    I like you a lot.  Not in a let’s go sheep herding and do some things we’re not too proud of in the tent way, but  in a your stuff just sinks in like an aisle of 5 hour energy shots sort of fashion.  

  4. Trink

    I needed this.  Thanks, Rick.  For those who skim pieces and may have missed it  .  .  I just have to quote this paragraph.  

    “Obama is largely reduced to trawling college campuses for political jailbait, stroking the shreds of his coalition in the increasingly desperate hope of getting at least a few salvageable video clips out of each day. Big Bird, binders, and bayonets don’t comprise a sweeping vision of a second Obama term and it shows. Vice-President Malaprop wanders Ohio diners, touching people’s food and getting biker chicks to sit in his lap. It’s a campaign in trouble, and they know it.”

  5. Leslie Watkins

    You have outdone yourself, DocJay.

    DocJay: I like you a lot.  Not in a let’s go sheep herding and do some things we’re not too proud of in the tent way, but  in a your stuff just sinks in like an aisle of 5 hour energy shots sort of fashion.   · 5 minutes ago

  6. R. Craigen

    Somewhere near the deadline in November we need to see two well-crafted RNC ads that drive this stuff home.  I’m thinking one that concentrates on BHO’s ego and simply runs together dozens of times Obama says “me” or “I” as if he were the focus of history (such as the famous number of times he used first-person pronouns in spiking the OBL football).  And another one that hits on Obama  being the most partisan president in history.  Run together a dozen or so times he talks about “… but the republicans in Congress” or “… and my republican opponents”.  A quick rundown of Romney’s record of bipartisanship provides contrast.  A tag line like the following would be good:  ”At no time in living memory has America had such a divisive president.  Today more than ever we need a president who can bring America together.  Obama has proven that he cannot be that man.”  Or “Can America survive another four years of Obama without being torn apart?”

  7. Leslie Watkins

    All I can say is, here I am on the Raleigh–Durham concourse, and virtually no Obama signs are passing me by. And the Obama–Biden signs I do see look really small, the print, and you’re not even sure if the names are going forward before the sign’s been left behind. (The background is Carolina Blue, so what’s to notice?) The landscape is, however, littered with signs for the Libertarian party candidate for governor and presidential contender Gary Johnson. This is all happening to the left of me, I’m assuming.  And the Romney–Ryan signs and bumper stickers are actually keeping pace with—if not actually overtaking—the number for the incumbents that be. … North Carolina’s not in play, apparently. But one reason why it’s not is that attachment to The One is greatly attenuated at this late hour, perhaps most especially among Democrats with a Progressive bent. I’m guessing that people are feeling okay about letting go of a passing dream and that they’re almost even willing to talk about it.

  8. Rick Wilson
    C

    Well, I just won’t quit doing this, then. ;)

    DocJay: I like you a lot.  Not in a let’s go sheep herding and do some things we’re not too proud of in the tent way, but  in a your stuff just sinks in like an aisle of 5 hour energy shots sort of fashion.   · 19 minutes ago

  9. Red Feline

    Rick, I really LIKE YOU a lot, too! Up here in Canada we only have MSM and I am really concerned that the propaganda they are spewing is true. What a breath of fresh air! I will sleep better tonight.

    I thought Obama doesn’t really know what he is talking about, in any deeply thoughtful way. He is good at spouting platitudes, but I really question how intelligent he is. Romney ran rings around him, and that was without really trying.

    Romney took Bain Capital from its beginnings to being the largest Private Equity company IN THE WORLD. No one does this without being able to negotiate with the best. It seemed to me Obama was a cheeky, wee, pip squeak, running in and out, taking jabs at the totally in control Champion.

    What kind of people admire Obama? I hate to think!

  10. wmartin

    Does anyone think that Richard Mourdock is going to have a negative impact on Romney/Ryan with affluent white suburbanites (states like Pennsylvania/Michigan/Colorado,etc). That’s the group that Michael Barone thinks Romney is appealing to in a major way for the first time since Clinton stole them away from the GOP in 1992. They are allergic to social conservative abortion/rape/God stuff. Is this getting big enough play that a crucial segment of this group will go back to Obama?

    Also, remember that gas prices are dropping fast and the unemployment report out five days before the election may be a good one (Gallup unemployment rate has dropped all the way down to 7.3% for October).  We still don’t lead in Ohio and ways of getting to 270 without it are scarce. Gallup is tightening fast (7 point lead down to 3 point lead in 4 days),and Rasmussen will tighten tomorrow, according to Scott Rasmussen. I allowed myself considerable optimism over the weekend, but that has faded as it strikes me again that there are far more ways to lose this than to win it.

  11. wmartin
    Wylee Coyote

    wmartin: Does anyone think that Richard Mourdock is going to have a negative impact on Romney/Ryan with affluent white suburbanites (states like Pennsylvania/Michigan/Colorado,etc).

    No.  Todd Akin didn’t seem to drag Romney down at all, despite the media hammering on it forever, and a roiling controversy among Republicans whether Akin should stand down, and the fact that Mitt Romney was still largely undefined in the public mind at that point.

    Mourdock won’t help, certainly, but his comments were less offensive than Akin’s, he seems to have little direct connection to Romney, and Mourdock has already apologized and clarified his remarks. 

    Yes, the Dems will pound the table about it – what else have they got? – but anyone who would have been turned off to Republicans by this stuff was lost to Romney long ago. · 3 hours ago

    Akin wasn’t just two weeks before the election, with all the electorate paying attention. I am not optimistic about Mourdock.

  12. Western Chauvinist

    What were once silver-bullet opposition research hits have become black holes where Obama’s cash goes to die: Bain, 47%, Massachusetts, tax returns, the Haircut of Intolerance, and Romney’s gaffes came and went.

    Shoot, even David Letterman is complaining to Rachel Maddow on national TV(!) about Obama lying about Romney. I mean, when you lose Letterman

  13. Scott R

    I still very much worry about this crazy state of OH. At this point I say we get the popular vote nationally, maybe comfortably, but still suffer through a late night watching OH returns — less than 100,000 votes will decide it, I bet.

    The irony is that if we win it’ll be because Romney pulled off the etch-a-sketch to perfection — not in policy but in tone and emphasis – even after having that loopy Fernstrom guy telegraph his intention to Team Obama. Amazing. It’s like announcing a fake handoff before the snap and then still fooling them.

  14. wmartin
    Scott [roy-sir]: I still very much worry about this crazy state of OH. At this point I say we get the popular vote nationally, maybe comfortably, but still suffer through a late night watching OH returns — less than 100,000 votes will decide it, I bet.

    Edited 14 minutes ago

    Ohio is what is keeping me up at night, especially Frank Luntz’s contention that it traditionally votes Democratic in times of economic hardship. I have very little confidence in alternative scenarios because, as I said to Prof Rahe yesterday, my formative political experience was 2000, when I was convinced by tantalizing poll numbers that we had momentum and several Democratic leaning states would flip- and then it all fell apart on election day. In September I had accepted that we were going to lose, and tried to be at peace with it; if we lose now after such a great October run, it will be real agony.

  15. Clavius

    Great analysis, well put.

    Don’t get cocky.

  16. GreenCarder

    Rick, even if we lose in two weeks’ time, thank you for letting me spend those two weeks in an optimistic mood.

  17. Frozen Chosen

    The choice is clear. In two weeks we find out what kind of country we really have.

  18. Duane Oyen
    The King Prawn: There’s still the 47%, or at least the true sentiment behind the poorly made remark. Many are still convinced that their best interest lies with  whoever promises the most of others’ property. But, yes, it does look more and more likely that we’re leaning less severely over the edge of that abyss. · 2 hours ago

    Boy, am I tired of this one.  1) The 47% statement was absolutely true.   Obama’s floor is at worst, 47% from the exact group described.  If we won a race 52-47, we’d have well over 300 electoral votes.

    2) It was a sneak video at a private fundraiser, compared with the Obama 2008 “bitter clingers” bit.

    This was just one more bit of  leftist media hype pushing the BHO talking points.  I wish we would stop reinforcing them.

  19. Duane Oyen
    Scott [roy-sir]: I still very much worry about this crazy state of OH. At this point I say we get the popular vote nationally, maybe comfortably, but still suffer through a late night watching OH returns — less than 100,000 votes will decide it, I bet.

    The irony is that if we win it’ll be because Romney pulled off the etch-a-sketch to perfection — not in policy but in tone and emphasis – even after having that loopy Fernstrom guy telegraph his intention to Team Obama. Amazing. It’s like announcing a fake handoff before the snap and then stillfooling them. · 45 minutes ago

    Edited 43 minutes ago

    We are blaming our intrepid Oiho correspondent if that state doesn’t get it right.  “The Roy-sir Boycott”.

  20. wmartin

    The Mourdock comments were brought up on leno tonight in Jay’s interview with Obama, and so broadcast into millions of homes. Wonderful.