5 keys to winning the White House:
Stay on Message: Convince voters you can fix the economy. For Barack Obama, it’s about helping the middle class and painting Mitt Romney as caring more about his wealthy friends than about American jobs. For Romney, it’s about pushing lower taxes and less regulation as the keys to economic revival and forcing Obama to defend a record of deficit spending.
Ground Game: Marshal volunteers, knock on doors, make phone calls, spread the word and get your people to cast early ballots and go the polls on Nov. 6. This is particularly crucial in the ten or so toss up states, including Ohio.
Raise Money, Spend Wisely: This is expected to be the most costly presidential election in U.S. history with Obama raising more than $375 million and Romney raking in more than $254 million. Most of it goes to TV ads in swing states but money is also poured into travel expenses, polling, political consultants, fundraising and staffing.
Avoid Major Mistakes: In a 24-hour news cycle, each side pounces on minor gaffes but it’s the doozies that must be avoided. In 2008, Republican John McCain gambled that Sarah Palin would inject new enthusiasm into his campaign. Instead, her inexperience led voters to question McCain’s judgment.
The X-Factor: A campaign must find momentum through a combination of fired up volunteers, enthusiastic voters and a charismatic candidate.
When it comes to elections in Ohio, it might seem like the campaigns are fought in 30-second blasts of negative TV ads and quick-hit robo-calls to thousands of households, but the work of winning takes other paths too: keeping candidates on message, turning out voters, raising mountains of money and avoiding major screw-ups on the campaign trail.
And then there are intangibles that campaign managers long for: a likeable candidate who connects with voters as a regular guy, enthusiastic voters who absolutely will cast ballots no matter what, and fired-up volunteers who are willing to give up Saturdays to stuff envelopes and go door-to-door in neighborhoods.
It is shaping up to be an all-in, no-holds-barred contest between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney and their allies, especially in Ohio. The most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history comes as the American economy stumbles along the road to recovery and voters worry about pocketbook issues such as college affordability, pension stability and job security. Meanwhile, there are dark clouds around the globe – a European debt crisis, tensions between Israel and Iran, and a violent situation in Syria — that could quickly undo the fragile recovery here.
Here’s a look at five key factors that will decide who wins the race for the White House.
STAY ON MESSAGE
Twenty years ago, Democratic political strategist James Carville told Bill Clinton’s campaign workers to focus on one thing: “The economy, stupid.”
The same advice holds true for the 2012 campaign to win the White House. The U.S. is slowly recovering from the worst recession since the Great Depression and Americans are worried. The national debt is $15.9 trillion and rising. The national unemployment rate sits at 8.3 percent, down from its 2009 peak, but stagnant this year. Pensions are uncertain for most, college is unaffordable for many, and health care costs have risen for nearly all.
Romney is trying to convince voters that he is the man to make it better. But so is Obama.
Obama’s message: My policies will help the middle class and rebuild the economy for the long-haul while Romney wants to return to Bush-era policies that helped the wealthy and created the current mess.
Romney’s message: The economy is faltering but my plan to cut taxes and reduce business regulations will lead to job creation.
Local voters appreciate the focus on the economy, but many struggle to sift through the campaign rhetoric. Pam Goelz of Oakwood said she’s interested in Romney’s plans.
“I would like to hear more on how he’s going to get the country back on track and balance the budget,” she said. “He says he’s going to do it, but I would like to know how.”
University of Dayton political scientist Dan Birdsong said each candidate tries to find a message that will resonate with voters. But the candidates have found themselves knocked off message and forced to play defense, he said.
For example, Romney’s efforts to talk about the economy, health care reform and runaway government spending have been stymied somewhat because the Obama campaign has been hammering him over his track record as the head of Bain Capital and his refusal to release multiple years of tax returns.
Aaron Pickrell, a senior advisor to the Obama campaign in Ohio, said the president will highlight how his policies have helped shore up Ohio’s economy, where unemployment is below the national average and manufacturing is rebounding. Ohioans will hear plenty about Obama’s auto bailout helping save one in eight jobs in the state and about Romney’s efforts to hide his tax returns and outsource jobs, Pickrell said.
“The key message for Ohio is that President Obama is moving the country forward,” Pickrell said. “He is creating a sense of economic optimism.”
The Romney camp responded by pushing the theme that Obama doesn’t understand or appreciate the work of small business owners.
“Mitt Romney has a real compelling message about the economy. It’ll be the most important thing about winning this state,” said Scott Jennings, the Romney Ohio campaign manager. Obama said his administration would cut the annual national deficit in half, reduce unemployment to less than 5.6 percent and implement a health care law that would save money – measurable items the Democrat has failed to deliver, Jennings said.
“They want to talk about anything except the economy,” he added.
Each campaign has millions of Americans who agree with their side of those claims. The challenge is to get all of those supporters to vote — either early or at the polls Nov. 6, while convincing some who are undecided to climb on board.
Campaigns and election experts alike agree that “the ground game” – local, in-person efforts in towns all over the state and the nation – will be crucial to which candidate wins the swing states.
When the Obama campaign opened its office in heavily Republican Miami County, Greg Schultz, state director for Obama for America, said, “You win Ohio by neighbors talking to neighbors.”
Last week, senior Romney campaign officials said despite all the money and technology being used, a volunteer knocking on a voter’s door is still the most effective voter contact they have.
Mike McMillon, an Obama supporter from Huber Heights, agreed, saying he puts more value on live interaction with people.
“It’s more personal and human,” he said. “The robo-call, as soon as it hits, I just delete and block it.”
Now both the Obama and Romney campaigns are touting the strength of their local organizations. The Obama camp is using the “Fired up, ready to go” slogan with its supporters this year. But the Romney camp claims that its volunteers, motivated by four years of an Obama presidency, are the ones who have the kind of intensity and passion that carried Obama in 2008.
Ohio Romney officials said this week that they’ve made nearly 1.3 million voter contacts in Ohio (phone calls and door-knocks combined), and are on track to make three times as many contacts as John McCain’s campaign did in 2008. McCain lost Ohio to Obama by less than five percentage points.
But Obama staffers point out that they have 50 separate campaign offices in Ohio (Romney has 36), and have the benefit of hundreds of volunteers who have been organizing in Ohio for 3 1/2 years.
John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said while TV ads are largely about changing people’s minds, the grassroots work is mostly about getting out the vote.
And there’s plenty of potential gain for the candidates on that front. Although national voter turnout in the 2008 election was the highest since 1968, more than a third of the nation’s eligible voters didn’t participate. According to the Ohio Secretary of State, 30 percent of Ohio registered voters – or 2.5 million people – did not vote in 2008.
Both campaigns are eager to earn votes from that group. Pickrell, of the Obama campaign, said the message will be important.
And while the campaign has already been busy, Romney campaign officials say they don’t plan to fully “unleash” the organization they’ve built until after Labor Day.
THE MONEY FACTOR
To unleash a campaign nationwide, you need money, and this year, both sides have it.
Obama and the Democratic National Committee currently have more money on hand ($146 million) than Romney and the Republican National Committee ($122 million), according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But Romney and the Republicans have turned the tide, raising more than their opponents each of the past three months.
And while the candidates don’t control it, there’s plenty of outside money helping them, too, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010. According to the CRP, super political action committees have already spent $245 million in this campaign cycle, with most of it going toward the presidential race. Other nonprofit groups that don’t have to report their spending have spent an estimated $500 million more.
With all sides spending “ridiculous” amounts of money, according to UD’s Birdsong, the question becomes, what spending is effective?
According to RealClearPolitics.com, which aggregates polling from dozens of sources, Obama led Romney nationally by about 4 percentage points this week – roughly the same as his lead four months ago today.
Birdsong said some of the campaigns’ spending is wasteful, but no one wants to penny-pinch if it means their side won’t get the last few thousand votes to put them over the top.
Local voters often point to one piece of campaign spending they wish would go away – the television ads. Jerald Tucker of Dayton was blunt.
“I don’t like them. They’re lies,” he said. “I want to know what (the candidates) are going to do for the country.”
Green said while TV ads are the most expensive part of a campaign, they’re not the most efficient. With TV, one message goes to the entire audience, whereas phone calls, direct mail and social media can be targeted at individuals or small groups of voters.
“The campaigns have these very detailed voter files – they don’t just know who’s registered and how often they voted, they know what kind of car they drive, whether they go to church, do they buy wine?” Green said. “With that very detailed information, you can target messages very precisely. And of course the more precisely targeted the message, the more likely you are to get a positive response.”
THE BIG MISTAKE
Despite all the planning that goes into these efforts, both campaigns know that the race can change on one unexpected moment — the big mistake.
Some mistakes are clear almost immediately — picture 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis posing in a tank — while others build gradually, as John McCain’s vice presidential pick of Sarah Palin hurt him with independent voters.
Romney officials said while staying on message is important, the campaign doesn’t focus on avoiding the big mistake, using a sports analogy to say they prefer to be on offense rather than defense.
Making a major gaffe would be an especially big worry in a close race like this year’s, given that campaigns are turning even perceived mistakes into major issues.
Romney turned Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark about small business into a monthlong attack, although three major fact-checking organizations said Romney was taking the quote out of context.
Democratic groups ripped Romney for comments about London’s Olympic security preparations, although many British politicians had voiced the same concerns days earlier.
“I think people pretty much knew what they both meant, but they didn’t say it quite right, and the other side pounced,” Green said. “…This is where the money comes in. If you’ve got good advisors, good infrastructure, it’s much easier to respond effectively than if it’s 24 hours before you can get everybody together.”
Pickrell of the Obama campaign didn’t address the issue of the back-and-forth attacks.
“A lot is made today about who is up and who is down and who is winning the news cycle, but what Ohioans know is that Mitt Romney is just not on their side with it comes to issues that matter,” he said.
If one side does make a major gaffe, it will be all the more important in a state like Ohio, where the campaigns have reserved plenty of TV time, and could quickly fill the airwaves with reminders of the other side’s mistake.
There are intangibles in a presidential campaign that can be coaxed but not forced. Factors such as voter enthusiasm, fired up volunteers and – most importantly – candidate likability can tip the scales.
Republican George H.W. Bush looked incredibly out of touch when cameras caught him marveling at the workings of a supermarket bar-code reader in 1992, while Democrat John Kerry looked like a rich guy when the footage of him windsurfing came out in 2004.
Democrat Al Gore looked like the smart kid who looks down on everybody else in class when he let out a big sigh during a debate with Republican George W. Bush. Meanwhile, the younger Bush was widely seen as someone Americans would like to invite for a backyard barbeque and a beer.
A Gallup poll conducted last month shows that Americans perceive Romney as more able to deal with the federal budget deficit, the economy and creating jobs, but they find Obama more likable, honest, trustworthy and as someone who understands the problems they face in their daily lives. Romney’s trust factor is likely hurt by his change of positions on abortion, gun control and health care, although Obama recently changed position himself, on gay marriage.
But a senior Romney campaign official argued that the “who would you like to have a beer with” issue is less relevant when the country is struggling, saying that voters just want someone who can speed up America’s recovery.
Republican voters are more enthusiastic about turning out on Election Day while Democrats’ interest in the election is lackluster. According to a recent Gallup poll, Democratic enthusiasm slipped from 68 percent in the 2004 election to 61 percent in 2008 to a mere 39 percent now. Conversely, GOP voter enthusiasm sat at 51 percent in 2004, dipped to 35 percent in 2008 and climbed back to 51 percent now, the poll found.
“It’s all about volunteers,” Jennings said. “Getting people to talk to their friends and neighbors. That’s what it’s all about, and (that’s) how you win.”