As a veteran of numerous national, state and local campaigns, I can tell you that each race and each campaign has its own life cycle. The 2012 presidential contest is no exception. As polls tighten, and especially since Mitt Romney’s decisive performance in the first debate, Team Obama and the president himself are showing signs of what I term a campaign’s “death rattle.”
GOP contender Rick Santorum withdrew from this year’s Republican primary within three days of my declaration that his campaign was in the final stages of “death rattle.” The phenomenon has three distinct stages.
In Stage One Death Rattle, the candidate veers sharply off-message, seemingly desperate to change the subject. Santorum, for instance, unsuccessfully tried to capitalize on Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom’s ill-advised “Etch-a-Sketch” comment. Santorum began showing up at rallies with a pink Etch-a-Sketch to accentuate the point and worked lame references to it into his stump speech. It became gimmicky and unbecoming a presidential candidate. Obama’s Stage One came shortly after the first debate with Romney, with childish comments about Big Bird and other Muppets running for the border, gimmicky terms like “Romnesia” and other memes unbecoming his office. These sorts of antics rarely work.
In Stage Two Death Rattle, where I see the Obama campaign today, the campaign staff becomes increasingly frustrated, and the candidate finds it difficult not to lash out through actions or words. One symptom is public profanity. Santorum’s Stage Two moment came in an argument with New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny over something Santorum had said in a speech. The former Pennsylvania senator was confrontational and suggested that Zeleny’s request for clarification and anything he might write about the issue were “bullshit.” Likewise, in a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Obama referred to Romney as a “bullshitter.” By most accounts, Obama harbors a deeply personal animosity toward Romney but had successfully managed it in their encounters and with the press. That changed with the Rolling Stone interview.
In Stage Three Death Rattle, the candidate’s negativity toward his opponent permeates his speeches and completely overtakes his vision and messaging. His speeches grow shrill and his campaign staff and volunteers become demoralized. At this point, Santorum withdrew. Obama isn’t here yet, but he’s perilously close. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote of an “aura of defeat” beginning to take hold within Team Obama. Maybe. But by any reasonable measure, the race remains very close.
Make no mistake about it, Team Obama and its leadership are rattled. History has shown that unseating an incumbent president is a daunting task. It is clear that Team Obama felt that the immense personal popularity of the president, unrelenting attacks on Romney and the power of incumbency would be sufficient to carry President Obama to a second term. The polls suggest otherwise.
In a few days, the jury — we the American people — will render a verdict on President Obama. A lot can happen in the next few days. Foreign affairs and questions about what happened at our consulate in Benghazi loom large for the president. Even an act of nature, Hurricane Sandy, could have a role in how it all unfolds.
We are living in challenging times, with the election of our lifetime at hand. It will be interesting to watch the final chapter in the life cycle of the 2012 presidential election and any symptoms of a campaign’s death rattle that may or may not come. Stay tuned.
N. Scott Jones is a contributing columnist at The Daily Caller, a Dallas-based, nationally recognized expert in public relations and public affairs, and a weekly radio commentator on “The Gary Snyder Show.” He has served as staff, an appointee or adviser to three U.S. presidents and two Texas governors.