Presidential trench warfare: Romney’s path to the White House

Mitt Romney didn’t get much of a bounce out of his convention.

The prognosticators on the left have declared, of course, that this means Romney failed his test with the American people and has already lost the election.

The reality, though, is pretty simple: The president won’t get much of a bounce either, and any bounce either man would have gotten would quickly dissipate anyway. We are living through the political equivalent of trench warfare, and for the past year any gain that is made turns into a Pyrrhic victory, only to be washed away shortly thereafter.

President Barack Obama has routinely gotten some very good news over the past year, not the least of which was the killing of Osama Bin Laden. However, each time that has happened the president’s improved standing with the American public has quickly evaporated, and we end up back to square one. If that happened when Bin Laden was killed, forgive me if I don’t tremble in fear about the effect of the conventions.

What is the real state of the race? We have just over 60 days left, and Romney is a marginal underdog. If you asked me to handicap the race, I would say that the president has a slightly higher chance than 50 percent of getting re-elected. Democrats point to the president’s precarious lead in a handful of swing states as evidence of some kind of coming landslide, but those polls tell you almost nothing of value right now.

Indeed, Romney is only down against Obama by a couple points or less in basically every swing state. At the same time, we haven’t even begun to see regular polling done with “likely voter” models, which tend to skew a couple points more Republican than the “registered voter” polls we are seeing right now. That by itself virtually ties this race.

More importantly, though, Romney has a couple key advantages that might turn this trench-style conflict in his (marginal) favor.

First, now that he has locked down his party’s nomination officially, an avalanche of money has been freed up that has previously been kept out of the race. Obama has outspent Romney on the air three- or four-to-one in most places, burning through cash faster than he could raise it in an attempt to define Romney in the minds of the voters before Romney could do so himself.

Now, with two months to go, the president has a major disadvantage, having spent all that money and gotten very little out of it.

The one “bounce” of substance from the Republican convention was a noticeable uptick in favorability ratings for Romney. It turns out that all the vile and evil things said about him by the president over the summer aren’t really true, and he is a genuinely good and decent human being. That, above anything else, was the message received from the convention.

Romney, having marshaled his resources, now will have the ability to outspend the president in key swing states, in an attempt to reinforce that newfound, if still precarious, likability factor. This by itself should close all the swing state races to a legitimate stalemate. Trench warfare, as I said.

No, it won’t be these conventions that decide the presidential election. Our next president will be determined by two things: the three remaining jobs reports and the performance of the candidates in the debates.

If unemployment rises and Romney outclasses the president at the debates, I think Romney emerges victorious. If the unemployment rate improves and the president decidedly beats Romney in the debates, Obama will win easily. If both are draws, then we should probably get ready for a repeat of the 2000 election.

Anyone who believes this election is over is just engaging in a lot of wishful thinking and Kool-Aid drinking.

At the end of the day, this will go down in history as one of the most protracted, perpetually divided elections in U.S. history. This election is, at its core, a test of the president’s strategy of burning money early to try to define and knock out his challenger and Romney’s strategy of holding back resources until the final 60 days to try to influence late deciders.

Romney’s strategy is more risky, necessitating powerful debate performances and gambling the election on late economic news. But when the metaphorical guns go silent on this campaign, it just may have been his path to the White House.

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Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.