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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