Mitt Romney’s campaign is hoping that a cash advantage and a laser-like focus on economic messaging targeted at disaffected blue-collar voters can help the Republican candidate erase President Obama’s small but persistent lead in the last two months before Election Day.
The Republican hopeful and the incumbent Democrat seem destined for trench warfare over the final weeks of the campaign — looking for a breakthrough that could dramatically upend the race, but preparing for a likely battle of attrition.
Romney was dealt favorable news last week when disappointing jobs numbers looked to halt Obama’s momentum after a strong week for Democrats at their national convention in Charlotte, N.C.
While campaigning in New Hampshire, President Obama was forced to admit that the addition of 96,000 new jobs in August — far less than the 150,000 expected by economists — was “not good enough.” Romney, meanwhile, called the report the “hangover” following the Democrats’ convention party.
“It definitely blunts momentum for Obama to get a significant bounce at the polls,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said. “We’ve had anemic jobs numbers throughout the past months, we know the effect they have, and it shows that the race will essentially be tied.”
But getting to the 270 electoral votes required to win still remains a daunting task for Romney, who will likely need to sweep Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida to pass the threshold.
Republicans say that a win is still within reach but it will take careful execution of a plan that seizes on some of their candidate’s advantages.
The first — a significant fundraising edge — was already on display just hours after the Democratic convention concluded in Charlotte. Romney’s campaign on Friday announced an advertising blitz featuring 15 new commercials to be broadcast in eight swing states, each focused on a different aspect of the economy. Romney has substantially outraised President Obama’s reelection campaign in recent months, and campaign aides have said the Republican nominee banked another $100 million-plus month in August. Combined with a huge advantage in terms of outside spending, Romney and his allies hope that they can drown out Team Obama on the airwaves.
But noticeably absent from the ad blitz announced Friday were commercials targeted at voters in Michigan or Pennsylvania. That suggests the Romney campaign is currently unwilling to apply its abundant advertising dollars in some of the long-shot states Republicans had hoped Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE (R-Wis.) would put into play — and significantly narrows the number of paths to victory. The Romney campaign on Sunday unveiled its first television ad in Wisconsin. The Badger State was not part of the initial ad buy.
Romney has created a scenario where he has little margin for error — and needs to find ways to further dampen enthusiasm for the president.
“They’ve decided to roll the dice and run a base-on-base election,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
One way to do that, strategists suggest, is by using the jobs report to demand that the president reach a deal with Congress in the coming weeks — when legislators will return to Washington — to avoid the looming fiscal cliff. Such a compromise is extremely unlikely, but if Romney persistently badgers Obama to strike a deal, he can use the eventual, inevitable failure to undermine the president’s credibility.
“With Congress coming back until the end of the month, he can say you’re the commander in chief, your responsibility is to work with Congress to solve these issues that are facing this country from major tax hikes to dramatic defense cuts,” Bonjean said. “He can set up the expectation with the result of expressing disappointment based on the president’s failure to get anything done.”
Romney will also work to sharpen his economic message, reiterating his critiques of Obama’s policies while selling Americans on his vision forward. While Romney was widely heralded for showing a more personal side at the Republican convention, his speech was light on policy specifics — giving Democratic speakers like former President Clinton plenty of opportunity for speculative analysis a week later.
“He’s going to have to put a little bit more specifics on his economic plans in general,” O’Connell said. “The onus is going to be on [Romney] to articulate what the president is doing wrong and not letting him spin it any way he can to make it look not as bad as it is.”
Romney also needs to turn in an excellent performance at the three presidential debates in October.
“They view these debates as another significant window where Americans are really watching and deciding,” Bonjean said.
Finally, Romney has to find a way to undermine the president’s support with his base — while defending his own core constituency of white male voters.
On the final night of their convention, Democrats placed special emphasis on the auto industry and the president’s military successes — messages clearly intended to appeal to male voters that have favored Romney.
Similarly, at their convention Republicans highlighted a softer side of their nominee and gave former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a prime-time speaking spot, indications they were looking to erode the president’s advantage with female voters.
“The opening left for Romney is for more Spanish-language advertising,” O’Connell said. “If he really flexes and spends there to counteract the president, even if he only picks up 5 or 10 percent, that makes a difference in Virginia or Colorado.”
The sum is a plan that requires precision. But there’s no easy way to unseat an incumbent president, and especially one that remains as personally popular as Obama. On the weekend, the Gallup poll showed the president’s favorability rating was higher than at any point since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Still, Republicans believe an underlying discomfort with the nation’s direction could ultimately redound to their candidate’s benefit.
“Two- or three-to-one believe the country is going in the wrong direction. A good impression just needs to be made that Romney is a credible alternative,” Bonjean said.