By Paul Goldman
“Keep hope alive,” Reverend Jesse Jackson liked to say when running for President in the 1980s. Although the top line horse race numbers in the latest Virginia poll gives the President a big 8-point edge over struggling GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, and a 3-point margin for Kaine over Allen, a look inside at the internal statistics show reason for the underdog Republicans to hope for victory come November.
This hope is based on three basic takeaways.
First, there does seem to be a persistent possibility of a small but potentially game-changing Obama/Allen vote this Fall. It seems to defy normal logic, yet such counter-intuitive results do often occur in politics. These voters seem to be thinking like this. They would prefer not to vote for the President. But given their view of the alternative, they are resigned to voting most likely once again for Obama. Thus they are using their other vote – the one for Senator – to try to ensure split party control in Washington as a check against what they don’t like about the President’s policies.
If this mind set is indeed out there among enough voters, then George Allen’s running against “Tim Obama” may be a more clever tactic than it otherwise might appear. That is to say: If Obama is going to win Virginia, then first blush logic would seem to say he shouldn’t want to identity Kaine with the majority voting for the President. However, the “Tim Obama” mantra would help with the “hold your nose” Obama vote discussed above. It is only March, so in time, we will all be a lot wiser. But for now, the possibility of an important yet small Obama/Allen vote remains a fascinating possibility.
Two, Mitt Romney still has a chance to be a strong Virginia competitor, provided whatever damage the long primary fight has done to the former Governor’s image can be mostly corrected by a unifying GOP National Convention in August. The polls show the Democratic vote is fully behind the President, so it is all about turnout, not persuasion for the Obama presidential campaign.
This is not true on the GOP side. There is still a decent percentage in need of persuasion. The same is also true for self-styled Independents who tend to have a GOP lean in Virginia. With Obama at 50% in the poll, the President’s 8 point lead is misleading given statistical margins of error and the fact the pollster seems to be a little pro-Democratic in turnout model.
Can the GOP Convention magically turn a primary of lemons into general election lemonade? As of today, there is no reason to bet a lot of money on such an outcome. But if the GOP can stop the circular firing squad in time, then Romney might come out of Tampa looking a lot better to swing Virginia voters. As for Rick Santorum, as long as he keeps running for Censor-in-Chief, he isn’t likely to defeat Romney, unless the former Olympic head misreads a bump on the downhill course and crashes before he gets to the finish line. This is still a real possibility, to me at least.
Three, the poll shows Governor McDonnell having no impact on the election if chosen as a Vice-Presidential running mate. Why? The poll also shows Tim Kaine and George Allen with far higher favorable ratings than is true in all the other polls. It tells me that Virginians, like Americans generally, are under incredible cross currents as we all adjust to a new world order whose technology, economics, and geopolitics is forcing all of us to rethink stuff.
I am beginning to wonder whether any of these favorable/unfavorable numbers mean what they once did. Presidential elections tend to have a defining moment when a candidate hits what has been troubling key voters dead on. Eisenhower “I will go to Korea” turned what Gallup said would be a close election into a landslide. Kennedy had the audacity to run to the right of Nixon saying the GOP had left us vulnerable to a “missile gap” when Americans were trying to make sense out of the Russians being the first into space with Sputnik 1. LBJ hit civil rights, Nixon had the “silent majority” during the 1960 protest area, Carter played Southern evangelicals brilliantly, Reagan “Are you better off now than 4 years ago”, Clinton “I feel your pain”, George W. Bush caught the anti-Lewinsky morality play pitch perfect, and of course candidate Barack Obama hit the “change” theme dead on.
Romney seems the least likely candidate to articulate the defining theme, since he is clearly more comfortable in the managerial, not oratorical, world. But he has advisors and the GOP has plenty of excellent wordsmiths. It would take quite the gambler to bet against the President, being the one who “gets it” first and brings the key swing voter to that “exactly what I was thinking!” moment.
But history suggests, from “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, that challengers are better situated to take advantage of the type of emotions – and politics is a lot of that – swirling about. So far, since the Republicans are so nasty and predictable in their 24/7 invective against the President, they have no credibility except with the 100% anti-Obamacons.
Once nominated, Romney is going to try to win: he won’t go the Sarah Palin route in terms of the VEEP, but he will prove to be triple jointed when it comes to his campaign positions/tactics.
Romney will try another reboot. Given the poll numbers in Virginia, if he can do that at the GOP convention while maintaining unity, and give a “game changer” of a speech, he will enter the general election in far better shape then he deserves.
I still stick to my prediction on national TV last year that he can’t possibly get elected President for the reasons stated in Politico.com article. But he and George Allen can not be counted out in terms of winning Virginia.