September 08, 2012

Assistant Professor of Political Science Chris Ellis
Assistant Professor of Political Science Chris Ellis

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Interviewed by Andy Hirsch

LEWISBURG, Pa. - Chris Ellis, assistant professor of political science, breaks down President Obama's convention speech and explains why we should expect the race to remain tight through Election Day.

Question: What did President Obama accomplish with his speech Thursday at the Democratic National Convention?

Answer: President Obama's speech had two main points of emphasis. The first was to try to reframe the election not as a referendum on his first term in office, but rather as a forward-looking choice of whether voters preferred his or Romney's plans for the country. This appeal was finely crafted to the very small portion of the electorate who is still undecided. These people are generally unhappy with the direction in which the country is headed, and they by and large do not see Obama as a successful president. But at the same time, they are also very skeptical of the Republican party's plans for the economy, and of Mitt Romney as a person. So unlike Romney, Obama very much tried to get voters to focus on the choice that they have to make between two competing candidates, rather than on their evaluations of Obama's job performance. Obama is much better off if the election is fought on the former terms than the latter ones.

The second, and more ideological point was trying to reorient voters to a different notion of what 'government' means. The Republican convention discussed government in a general and almost philosophical sense: as an obstacle to recovery and an impediment to free enterprise. Obama did not attempt to rebut Romney's argument on these terms. Instead, he talked much more specifically about the things that government does: the children it educates, the fires it fights, the streets it protects, and so on. This fits very clearly with what we know about how Democrats and Republicans talk about their policy plans: Republicans tend to talk in abstract ideas and concepts, while Democrats talk specific programmatic goals. The reason for this is simple: voters, perhaps paradoxically, dislike the idea of 'government' but are broadly supportive of most government programs.

Q: Some have said the Obama campaign lacks the energy and excitement that carried him to victory in 2008, especially among young voters. Can he recapture that "Yes we can" momentum he had four years ago?

A: I don't think he can, and I'm not sure he's even really trying. You noticed a bit of that in his speech, which was broadly effective, but not nearly as inspiring or optimistic as the Obama of old. There are many reasons for this reorientation in thinking. First, after being President for four tough economic years, it is just much harder to sound a cheery, optimistic note without also sounding tone-deaf to the problems that citizens are facing. This speech had a good bit of "hope," but also contained many more references to just how hard things are to fix and how much work it's going to take to make things better.

Second, the 2008 election was about as perfect a context for electing a Democratic president as we've ever seen. The economy was bad, the incumbent president was deeply unpopular, and the challenger did not offer much in the way of new ideas. People wanted change, and Obama was able to marshal this into a wide, energetic base of support. To their credit, Obama's team realized very early on that the tactics that worked in 2008 probably wouldn't work again in 2012. If he is to win re-election, he will have to do it the conventional way: raise a lot of money, throw red meat to core supporters to make sure they remain active, slog through a tough campaign season, and hope swing voters ultimately give him the benefit of the doubt.

Q: With both conventions behind us, what should we expect out of this race between now and November (much of the same, tighter, do you see one candidate opening up a lead)?

A: It's likely that Obama will get a convention bounce of some sort, but I don't think that it will be very large, and I don't see a scenario whether either candidate opens a substantial lead. This election has been by far the most stable in terms of voter preferences that we've seen since we started regularly polling elections back in the 1960s. Over the course of the campaign, the polls usually move back and forth a good bit - one candidate taking a lead for a while, then the lead growing, shrinking, or switching to the other candidate, and so on. Even Walter Mondale was ahead for a brief period in 1984. But Obama has held a very small, but very real, lead essentially since April.

This is in large part a function of the substantial polarization we've seen in American politics over the past few decades that has made it much more likely that voters clearly know who they prefer before the campaigns even really start. In the next couple of months, we'll see all sorts of things - debates, campaign events, the candidates and superPACs spending millions upon millions of dollars to get their message out - and none of it, in all likelihood, will move the needle very much. There just aren't that many voters left to persuade.

Q: What do you expect it will take to push one candidate over the edge and into the White House?

A: There are certainly some surprises that could come along the way - if the economic situation in Europe deteriorates, for example, that would be very bad for Obama's re-election hopes. And if the economy here pretty clearly heads in one direction or another, that will matter as well. But barring some of these things, it is going to be a matter of campaigns simply fine-tuning their messages enough to persuade or mobilize exactly the right people, at exactly the right time, that will make the difference.

The most important point is that the while the race is very stable, it is also very close. I think that there are four states that are worth watching most closely as we move forward: Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Iowa. If Obama wins even one of these, he will in all likelihood win re-election. If he wins two, he almost certainly will. But if he loses them all, then his path is very, very difficult. And in each of these states, the polling average places the candidates within less than one percentage point of one another. So anything that changes the mind of even one voter in 100 could have enormous consequences.

Read Ask the Experts: Reacting to Romney

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