This year’s presidential campaigns are stuck between a rock and a hard place

TW: misogynistic policies and rhetoric, institutional racism, deportation, gun violence

Last week, I quoted Brian Williams lamenting that there’s currently little in the way of grand appeals to moderate, centrist, and undecided voters from either the Obama or Romney campaign. Williams faulted the campaigns themselves, implying that they are unconcerned with the quality of political discourse in the country, but I think there’s other factors explaining why both major parties’ tickets are playing cautiously. Looking back over Nate Silver’s record of the presidential polls so far this year, there have been two really interesting political shifts over the summer. As his methodology behind the his poll numbers is rather well thought out and has a good track record of predicting results, I think there may be something important to the appearance a subtle shift in favor of Obama in late June and a sudden erosion of that support at the tail end of July.


(This is a capture of Nate Silver’s “Now-Cast” for the popular vote in the presidential election.)

As shown above, for the most part Obama has hovered approximately 1 to 1.5 percentage points above Romney, excepting the brief period mostly in July when the gap reached as much as 2 points. Interestingly, both the background lead of Obama as well as his July boost seem linked to a wide variety of shifting factors. Unlike the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, which were to a large extent referendums on George Bush’s prior term or terms, there’s a great deal of muddling about what issues this election will focus on.

I’d argue that two major forces were creating Obama’s smaller but sustained lead prior to the last week of June, through his July surge, and even now – the blowback from the War on Women and increasing restrictions on voting. Especially in the past few weeks, misogyny that simultaneously denies women their reproductive freedoms, denies basic scientific knowledge of female reproductive biology, and denies that women are valid witnesses to their bodily experiences, has been exposed as a component to the Republican presidential ticket and the Republican Party’s platform.

Likewise, while new voter restrictions have disenfranchised millions of Americans, their effect on the polls is probably quite negative for the Republican Party, as they can easily be interpreted as fixing elections. Whether criticism of the party for attempts to purge voters in Florida and Colorado as well as instituting new restrictions in numerous other states will actually counterbalance the mass disenfranchisement in the coming elections remains to be seen, but currently both presidential campaigns seem to anticipate even the most stringent barriers to voting to have minimal impact.

Against the electoral background created by those two issues, late June saw a bit of a perfect storm, if a smaller one, for the Obama campaign. The President’s executive order to halt deportations of undocumented individuals who would have been able to apply for citizenship under the DREAM Act on June 15, was an action the Romney campaign couldn’t respond to without either alienating vital Latino support or nativist segments of the Republican base. He spent the following weeks in June seeming weak and indecisive if not two-faced on the issue, which allowed Obama to regain levels of Latino support reminiscent of his 2008 landslide.

Meanwhile, in proceeding weeks the Obama campaign had been producing some hard-hitting ads about Romney’s record of disaster capitalism at Bain, but I remember an ad originally aired on June 23 affecting people more than earlier ones. Something about the poetic cruelty of being forced to build the stage on which an executive announced your downsizing convinced people more effectively than earlier ads, which many pundits had declared to be a tactical mistake by the Obama campaign. In any case, this and later ads seemed to shore up Obama’s support in Democrat-leaning areas of the rustbelt and give him a small but clear lead in more conservative states in the same formerly union-rich region.

Of course, not all of the major events at the end of June were ones that necessarily favored Obama. The most impacting of them – the Roberts ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – was contained in its damage, however, as it mainly rallied the conservative base to push for a full repeal and the liberal base for a reinstatement or similar fix. The only demographic that it seems to have caused to shift were independents who agreed with Obama’s progressive social policies and comparatively moderate international approach but differed with him on economic issues. Concentrated in rural New England, the worst damage was in New Hampshire, where Obama’s lead shrank significantly but didn’t disappear.

While there are obviously other issues that have reared their heads at various points in this election, these seem to be among the major players, which the Republican National Convention is in part trying to respond to, both to prevent another rush like the July surge and to address the fact that their party is systemically behind. That’s why we’ve seen so many prominently featured female speakers of color – Mia Love, Nikki Haley, Lucé Vela, Condoleezza Rice, and Susana Martinez. That’s partly an attempt to inoculate their party from criticism for supporting nativist, racist, and misogynistic policies. This is also why they’ve worked to reframe the “You didn’t build that”/“We built it” debate around immigrants who started family-run businesses (like the Tangs referenced by Rand Paul), pulling the quote out of its context as a criticism of the supposed captains of industry. That’s an effort to reframe the previous discussion of class and inequality in a way more favorable to their party. That’s also why Attorneys General Pam Bondi and Sam Olens (of Florida and Georgia, respectively) framed voter restrictions as a reasonable precaution and a national health care mandate as tyranny – to defend the Republican stance on those issues. It seems likely that at least a few of those themes will be touched on throughout the remaining speeches tonight.

Intriguingly enough though, the issue of violence in American culture and potential policies of gun control, which seem linked to Obama’s falling numbers in later July, is a topic that can only be faintly implied, as in New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez’s speech. It’s worth noting that in the later weeks of July, originally after the Aurora shooting but as similar incidents continued to rock the nation, calls for gun control seriously perturbed firearm advocates, and tapped into a long-standing anti-Obama message. With a wide range of firearm-related deaths in recent memory, it’s understandable that this point is too politically risky for Republicans to directly address. It’s likewise the case that Obama, as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates, has to remain absolutely non-threatening as a Black man and can’t even obliquely reference these issues without eliciting blowback.

So the political campaigns have taken a huge twist in the past few months. Obama is capable of making key choices to heighten his lead but vulnerable to events outside of his control limiting his ability to discuss pressing issues in any capacity. Romney likewise can’t directly reference the issues most toxic to Obama because they’re potentially dangerous for him to be seen as politicizing, and he can’t counter Obama’s current strengths without some duplicity (namely, implying one thing to White supporters and implying another to Latinos and other people of color). This race is practically guaranteed from here on out to be an interesting series of rhetorical gymnastics. Obama can speak plainly but only as long as certain issues are out of the picture and Romney has to speak around issues to lead different groups to mutually exclusive conclusions about what his policies would be. To the extent that Brian Williams is right that neither campaign is directly addressing many of the important political issues, he’s ignoring the complex reasons behind their strategic choices.

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One thought on “This year’s presidential campaigns are stuck between a rock and a hard place

  1. […] possible and suggest exactly those unthinkable reversals. A lot of the restrictions I talked about in the last presidential cycle seem to continue to ensnare presidential contenders – most notably that Trump is trying what […]

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