In the 1992 presidential race, a much younger James Carville famously coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid” to describe what mattered in the race between sitting President George H.W. Bush and a relatively unknown Democratic governor of Arkansas — Bill Clinton. President George H.W. Bush had approval ratings of 90% after the success of the first Gulf War. Unfortunately for Bush, those numbers went into free fall with the economic downturn of 1992.
While each presidential race is different, one thing is still the same as it was in 1992: It’s still the economy, stupid. That fact is very bad news for Barack Obama and very good news for Mitt Romney. On a day when the unemployment number ticked up yet again, we are reminded of just how tough the Obama economy has been for many Americans.
While it is still the economy that is issue number one in the minds of American voters, it alone is not enough to carry the day for Mitt Romney.
The real unemployment rate — the rate when you factor in those who have given up looking for a job or are underemployed — sits at almost 15%. Real wages have declined. Gas prices have soared. While the Obama team would like to trumpet the recent dip in the official unemployment rate to below 8%, the fact is that many Americans do not feel like a recovery is underway.
President Obama’s promises from the 2008 campaign have come back to haunt him. For example, he promised healthcare premiums would go down under his plan — they haven’t, pinching families even harder in tough economic times. He promised he would have us on the road to independence from foreign oil — and though he has benefited from the discovery of shale gas, prices at the pump have skyrocketed, and the optics of holding up the pipeline from Canada further dispels his narrative.
President Obama promised his stimulus package would create 5 million new “green jobs.” Instead, the American taxpayer has been left holding the bag for billion-dollar boondoggles like Solyndra, with the grant process having heavily relied on a series of losers.
President Obama promised that his stimulus package would lower poverty levels, but unfortunately millions have fallen below the poverty line during his term.
Despite a strong wind at his back in the shape of an overall dismal economic situation, Mitt Romney struggled to keep pace with President Obama after the RNC and DNC conventions and throughout the month of September. This was particularly the case in a handful of key swing states — most notably Ohio, where Romney fell dangerously behind.
While the president’s record on the economy makes him vulnerable, a challenger needs to make himself a viable alternative. In other words, the American people need to be convinced not only that the president needs to be fired, but that Romney should be hired. In the month of September, Team Obama put Romney on defense, and he was not closing the deal.
This all changed with the first debate. The voters got an opportunity to see an unfiltered Romney stand head to head with the president. Romney’s performance far exceeded expectations, while the president’s fell far short.
In subsequent debates, all Governor Romney had to do was show himself to be a plausible alternative to the incumbent. That’s a relatively low bar, but one he could not clear in September.