For all of this year we have rejected the widely stated conventional wisdom that the closely divided electorate means this will be a razor thin election. The electorate has been this closely divided for more than a decade (at least going back to the 2000 election that was decided by a Supreme Court Decision to stop counting the votes) but wave elections have been more common than narrow victories over this period. In most cases the polls remain close throughout the summer, but diverge as the election draws closer, and often the election night yields an additional surprise in the magnitude of the shock.
This pattern certainly describes the two most recent national elections. The Democratic wave in 2008 and the Republican wave in 2010 both took shape no earlier than August. In 2008, Barack Obama led John McCain by 3 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average on August 19, with polls just before the Sarah Palin announcement almost precisely matching his 3.2 point lead over Romney in the same index on August 19 of this year.
The Republican surge in the generic congressional ballot in 2010 started taking shape in early August, but as late as August 12, the Real Clear Politics average had the Democrats just 4 points behind 46% to 42%. In both cases, the polls diverged but still under-predicted the degree to which it would be one side doing all the dancing on election night.
No matter how close the parties were in the summer, when one side racks up most of the victories on Election Night, the pundits look back on the year and see signs of the building wave. We have believed all year that a wave has probably been building, but we have not been certain which party’s wave is taking shape. We are getting closer to saying we think we see it now.
The Republican Wave Scenario Gets a Boost
It is still quite possible Republicans will sweep this election and if so, we may be looking back on the August 3 release of the July jobs report as the day the tide started to build. Until quite recently, the Republican theory of the case was that this election would be a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy. He promised to fix a broken economy, but the economy stinks so give another guy a chance. This could still deliver electoral success in November – the economic numbers have continued to be disappointing all summer – but we have had our doubts about this strategy all along, and now it seems the Romney campaign no longer believes it is a winning strategy.
The weakness in the strategy was always Romney’s lack of economic proposals that are distinct from the discredited economic policies of former President George W. Bush. Obama has been making this point in ads that have been running for several weeks, and even as the economy bumps along, Romney is not gaining in the polls, as many voters continue to say they are unconvinced that Romney has a plan to move the economy forward.
By choosing Paul Ryan as a running mate, Romney signaled an abandonment of the referendum on Obamanomics strategy. Republicans now agree with Democrats who have been saying for over a year “the election is not a referendum, it is a choice.” Romney’s selection of Ryan was designed to add substance to his up to then substance-free campaign. Even though Romney had been working to avoid any commitments to controversial political positions in the “Etch-a- sketch” pivot from Primaries to the General Election, he realized his campaign lacked enough substance to offer voters enough of a policy contrast. Bringing Ryan on the ticket creates the possibility to transform a campaign about nothing into a discussion of grand political philosophy. Both sides now agree, this election has the potential to become an epic choice between two governing philosophies and two distinct futures.
To the degree that Republicans could win such a debate – the chances of 2012 shaping up to be a Republican wave election have increased. But Republicans seem remarkably lacking in confidence that they would come out on top in a battle of political philosophies. Instead of owning Ryan’s proposals to reign in government spending for Medicare and Medicaid, they are funding ads claiming Obama is the Medicare “Cutter-in-Chief.” Romney and Ryan endorse all of Obama’s Medicare cuts and then some, but viewers of the Romney Campaign’s ads might be confused about this fact.
At the same time Romney and the Republicans are charging Obama with removing the work requirement from welfare – a false charge Politifact rated “Pants on Fire” — and holding rallies in front of signs that reference the falsely edited tape of Obama saying “you didn’t build that” as if he was saying small business owners didn’t build their businesses when he was in fact saying they didn’t build the roads and bridges the businesses use to ship their goods. In an act of cringe-worthy political dishonesty, the roads and bridges were edited out of the excerpt that plays after Mitt Romney says “I am Mitt Romney, and I endorse this message.”
If Republicans believe in their proposals and policies then they would want to debate them rather than confuse voters about what the real differences are in this election. For this reason alone, we conclude the most recent phase of this campaign has been aiding the Democratic wave scenario.
The Democratic Wave Scenario Gets a Much Larger Boost
If the Democrats end up on top after the votes are counted, there are now two inflection points that could be pointed to as the start of the Democratic wave. The first of these was President Obama’s reversal of policy through Administrative order to not deport young immigrants who would qualify for the Dream Act that has so far failed to pass on Capitol Hill. This maneuver isolated Romney to the farthest right wing position he took during the primary campaign, at a time when he assessed Texas Governor Rick Perry as his most potent adversary and pounced on his soft (for Republican primary voters) positions on immigration issues. When Obama changed his policies, and Romney had no counter move to reach out to Hispanic voters, he may have written off enough of the swing vote in key states to make the Electoral College math work in his favor. We will see how this plays out over the remainder of the race.
But the selection of Ryan is now more likely to be viewed as the point the race started to unravel for Romney and the rest of the Republicans, because it links the Presidential ticket to the most unpopular elements of the historically unpopular Republican Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Speaker Boehner held a conference call on August 14 making the case to worried Caucus members that Democrats had already planned to run their House campaigns against the Ryan budget, passed twice by nearly every House Republican. This is 100% true. But the Democrats had a big problem; their pollsters were coming back from focus groups across the nation with news, shocking among insider circles, that few voters had any idea who Paul Ryan is or what was in his budget. Half of that problem has now been solved, and all of the effort can go into pointing out that his budget does in fact lower tax rates for the wealthy, cut Medicaid and Food Stamp aid to the poorest Americans, and cut Medicare far more than the Democrats while changing the popular program for those under 55 away from a guarantee of healthcare toward a voucher system that caps prices and leaves middle-class retirees the burden of making up the difference if health insurance prices rise faster than the growth rate of the economy.
Even if his proposals have lacked detail and often the numbers have not added up, from a policy point of view there is something to be admired in Ryan’s willingness to – in the past if not more recently as the Vice Presidential candidate – discuss difficult choices that could be part of a bi-partisan grand bargain on the budget, deficit, and taxes. But in an election campaign the potential also exists for voters in the short term to reject Ryan’s proposals as, at a minimum failing to balance the needs of wealthy Americans who would see their taxes lowered with the needs of middle class Americans who would see their benefits cut.
Ever since the Occupiers took to Wall Street, we have seen the most likely Democratic wave scenario as being one where Republicans found themselves on the wrong side of a class war in an election year. From this point of view Republicans may have nominated the worst possible candidate for President in common-man-challenged Mitt Romney, and he may have made the worst possible Vice Presidential selection by nominating Paul Ryan whose budget spells out details of the Robin Hood in reverse public policies.
Current Rating: 8/22 Scenario 1: Republican wave 26%. Scenario 2: Democratic wave 34%. Scenario 3: Anti-incumbent wave 16%. Scenario 4: No wave 13%. Scenario 5: Pro-incumbent wave 11%.