Scott Rasmussen's polls differ from those of his rivals in one particular. He samples likely, not registered voters. Come October, however, many of the other pollsters shift their sampling and focus, as Rasmussen does, onto likely voters. They vary their method on the presumption that the likely-voter screen does not mean much until quite late in the game, when self-identified likely voters really are the ones most likely to vote.
Whether Rasmussen is right in his judgment or his rivals are in theirs is an open question. But it is striking that, now that October has arrived, the latest CNN poll has fallen into line with Rasmussen's findings. I am not myself confident that any of these polls are prescient. They tend to weight the likely partisan makeup of the electorate with an eye to the 2008 turnout. I believe that 2010 is a better predictor. The midterm election was a referendum on Barack Obama's accomplishments.
Be that as it may, however, in the worst-case scenario Mitt Romney is right now precisely where he would want to be -- within striking distance of a victory. We are told by the pollsters and by many pundits that the debates rarely matter much. This may be true in years where it is not obvious that a lot is at stake. But they can matter, and they did the last time an insurgent Republican defeated a Democratic incumbent. Ronald Reagan did not appear to be in contention at this time in 1980, but he won a landslide in the end.
There was nothing miraculous about what happened. The economy was a mess in 1980, and Jimmy Carter had made a hash of the Iran crisis. He seemed to be out of his depth. But he was the devil that we knew, and Ronald Reagan was a relative unknown. Sure, we had seen him in the movies; and, yes, he had been a highly visible Governor of California. But you must remember that Americans outsource politics. We choose women and men to represent us and leave them free to act. From time to time, when called upon to do so, we issue a judgment on them. The real question in 1980 was whether we should retain in office the man we knew or roll the dice and choose someone widely demonized as a right-wing nut.
You and I are political junkies. We follow politics closely. We have known for a long time that Barack Obama is a catastrophe unfolding. We know that the "stimulus" bill was a looting exercise, that Obamacare is a vast power grab, and that Dodd-Frank is apt to make the danger posed by the New York banks even greater than it was before. Many of our fellow citizens -- those who rallied to the Tea-Party banner -- are also alert.
But there are a great many Americans who have sleep-walked through the last four years. Many of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and were proud that the country had finally elected a black man to the Presidency. They retain a certain affection for him because of that pride, and they do not want to think ill of him -- for to do so they would have to think ill of their own judgment. And yet they sense that all is not well. The Libyan debacle upset them, and they can see that our Mideast policy is in disarray. Moreover, they know about the national debt, and that worries them; they are very much aware of the level of unemployment and underemployment; and they do not like Obamacare. Their knee-jerk response to a pollster's call may be that they lean towards voting for the President, but they are in fact open to the possibility of voting for the other guy -- about whom, in fact, they do not know very much.
That was where a great many Americans stood in early October 1980 -- more comfortable with the devil they knew and with the judgment that they had made in 1976 than with the alternative, but not all that happy with the direction the country was going. Ronald Reagan was not, in fact, a great debater. He was less comfortable on his feet than he was in delivering prepared remarks. But he managed, when finally the American people gave him their attention, to persuade them to roll the dice. That is what Romney has to do on Wednesday night.
My advice would be simple. When asked a question, Mitt Romney should answer the question as directly as possible. That is what Dick Cheney was able to do. It is what Paul Ryan can do. And Romney's people should prepare him to do so.
I have watched innumerable debates, and time and again I have been embarrassed for my country. The pattern is for the candidates to give a canned answer to a question other than the one asked. Were our candidate to display comfort and confidence, were he to reframe at least some of the questions asked in the manner exemplified by Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary debates, were he to state clearly what he intends to do, he would blow his rival out of the water.
In the process, Mitt Romney needs to go on the attack. Clark Judge is, I think, right to suggest that Romney should charge Obama and the Democrats with prolonging the recession, and he should indicate how he would get us out.
But I believe that he should get more personal as well. He should try to get under Obama's notoriously thin skin by attacking him directly -- by suggesting that he enjoys the perquisites of the Presidency a lot more than the job; by pointing to the fact that he left it to Congress to draft the "stimulus" bill, Obamacare, and Dodd-Frank and that, as a consequence, these bills were incoherent, incomprehensible, and more than a thousand pages in length; and by noting that in the last six months the President managed to play golf and hobnob with celebrities with notable frequency, but that he somehow could not find time to meet with his jobs council even once; that he regularly skipped his intelligence briefing; and that he could not manage to meet with foreign dignitaries, such as Benjamin Netanyahu, who had pressing concerns. I can imagine him saying that Barack Obama would be a lot happier if he were relieved of these unwelcome responsibilities and left free to play golf and frolic with the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z as often as he wants.
This should be done gently -- in such a fashion as to elicit laughter. Barack Obama genuinely hates Mitt Romney, and he may well lose it if his own taste for the high life is mocked.
If Governor Romney handles this in the right manner, there will, in the course of the next few weeks, be a shift in public sentiment in his direction. What he has to articulate is what most Americans sense but no one has thus far clearly said -- that Barack Obama is not a man of executive temper and that he is out of his depth. But there is one more thing that he has to do.
This last task may be difficult for Romney. He is by training and instinct a manager -- uncomfortable with principles and focused on technical competence. Put simply, he is a businessman inclined to be apolitical. That was his stance when he ran for the Senate and for the Governorship in Massachusetts. He was, he intimated, above the partisan fray. He was not even a Republican when Reagan led the country. He was, he said, more a reformer than a Republican, and that is how he handled himself in office -- as an apolitical turn-around artist hired to right the ship.
Governor Romney seems in recent months to have learned in the school of hard knocks the importance of political principles. His remark on the 47%, mistaken though it may have been with regard to the particulars, suggests a dawning realization on his part that the administrative entitlements state, so beloved by those trained in management, can be a corrupting force -- that dependency can destroy a liberal democracy. It is vital that he say so tomorrow night.
We all sense this; Mitt Romney needs to voice it. Then, he needs to make it the central theme of his campaign. Do you want to end up on food stamps permanently? Do you want to become a ward of the state? Or do you want to assert your autonomy and make your own way by finding a job? That is the question.