Playing the Veepstakes

As the national conventions of the major parties approach, the presidential campaign has taken a sharply negative turn in recent days.

Even conservatives are turning on themselves, not because they really think that Romney is going to lose, but because they are mounting an internal campaign to foist a more robustly conservative running mate, Paul Ryan, on Romney knowing that the person on the top of the ticket was the least conservative person the Republicans could have chosen.

Most candidates name their running mates about a week before the national conventions. So this is the time to apply the pressure.

Between now and November, strategy will matter, because fundamentals are unlikely to change. In particular, the state of the economy is unlikely to be as great a predictor as it has been in past elections. First, the unemployment rate is not going to affect Obama as much as once thought, because of a collective sense of learned helplessness, already priced into the market, that the state of the American economy turns on what happens to the European Union. Second, 60 percent of Americans believe Obama inherited an economic morass, which means that the best predictor of election outcomes, the economy, becomes less useful. Third, the Obama campaign neutralized its greatest weakness – the economy’s performance – by making a big deal about Romney’s tax returns and Bain history. If Romney does not redefine himself in the eye of the electorate, he cannot put the blame of the faltering economy wholly on Obama’s shoulders. Oddly enough, that Republican-leaning superPACs are raising three times as much money as Democrat-leaning superPACs is only adding to the perception that Romney is in cahoots with Big Business.

Since economic fundamentals are out of the control of the politicians, unfortunately, for already weary television audiences in the swing states, it is going to be a deluge of mud slinging till the end. Artificial crises, mutual outrage, feigned innocence are among the predictable catalogue of campaign techniques for a democracy reduced to treating citizens as poll-tested automatons responding to manufactured stimuli.

Political fundamentals, however, will continue to apply. And here, Obama dominates. The electoral map tells a story far clearer than the noise of the national polls going up and down, and the media reporting the sideshow of the day. In fact, at the risk of over-simplifying the puzzle, one need only look at Ohio. No Republican candidate has won the presidency without taking Ohio, and Barack Obama has led in every poll in Ohio since November 2011, by an average of 5 points. My advice to Romney if he wants to win: ask, beg, demand that Ohio Senator Rob Portman be his running mate. If he takes a risk as McCain took on Palin, and goes with Ryan, then he already knows that he has nothing to lose.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and the author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency. He has contributed to or been cited in Bloggingheads.tv, The Chronicle of High ...read more

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