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July 25, 2012 10:47 AM Ghost Candidate

By Ed Kilgore

I’ve spent a lot of time here lately raising doubts about the “referendum” hypothesis of this presidential election: that swing voters are in the process of or have already taken their own temperatures as to how they feel about life under Barack Obama, and once that process ends, the outcome will be determined with little or no regard to anything Mitt Romney says, does or represents.

But the more nuanced (or honest) advocates of the “referendum” hypothesis will admit that even under their model, it’s a two-phase process, and that once swing voters have made their judgment about the incumbent, the challenger must cross some invisible threshold of credibility, and if he struggles to do so, the election can turn into much more of a “choice” than a “referendum.”

That’s why Sean Trende’s latest column for RCP, which essentially warns Team Romney they are failing so far to navigate “Phase 2,” is well worth reading. Sean looks at the most recent Pew survey and finds that while swing voters may be prepared to “fire” the incumbent, they aren’t sold on the challenger just yet because he refuses to tell them much about himself:

[A]mong independents — who are almost certainly the lion’s share of those who have not yet formed a strong opinion of Romney — 42 percent say they want to know more about his record as governor, 37 percent want to know more about his record as CEO of Bain Capital, and 35 percent want to know more about his tax returns. Just 21 percent of independents want to know more about his wealth, 19 percent want to know more about his family and upbringing, and 16 percent want to know more about his religious beliefs….
Complicating matters for the Republican’s campaign, the president is at 46 percent in head-to-heads in the RCP average. In the past six presidential elections, this has represented the floor for the parties (in terms of two-party vote share). In other words, the low-to-medium hanging fruit for Republicans are already either voting for Romney or are undecided. Absent a major economic collapse, Obama’s poll numbers simply aren’t likely to drop any lower.
So voters are at Step 2 of the referendum model. They are evaluating Romney. In this situation, the Republicans are doing the exact wrong thing by making 90 percent of their ads attacks on Obama. Although voters always say this but rarely mean it, they really do want Romney to go positive. They are interested in learning about his accomplishments (or lack thereof), especially during his term as governor.

But we all understand why Romney hasn’t “gone positive,” don’t we? Just look at the things Pew’s independents say they need to know more about: Mitt’s gubernatorial record is a snake pit for him, featuring accomplishments that he dare not talk about for fear of offending his party “base” and/or exposing flip-flops. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about his taxes. And whether or not you think the attacks on Bain Capital have “worked” so far, they have certainly neutralized that part of Mitt’s life as a clear positive. So what’s he going to “go positive” about? The Ryan Budget? His rickety policy proposals on taxes? His virtually non-existent jobs platform? Do tell.

Trende thinks Team Romney’s fooling itself if it imagines he can get away with campaigning the way it has up until now, with a ghost candidate:

[T]hese are parts of his biography that simply must be filled in if Romney wants to win, along with his activities turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics. (Does anyone outside of the political world even know about that?) If Romney can do this, he’ll have an excellent shot at winning this race. It might not even be close. But if he can’t, he will probably become the first presidential challenger in modern history to pass Step 1 of the referendum model, but fail Step 2.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on July 25, 2012 11:14 AM:

    Mitt is the absolute least natural major Presidential candidate I have ever seen.
    He makes Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry, seem like Lincoln, Teddy, and Franklin.
    Keeerist, he makes Nixon look Clintonian!

    The Republicans are left praying for what they're been praying for for the last 3+ years - another massive terrorist attack, and/or another economic collapse.

    Now, the first could certainly happen at any time.
    As can the second, with European leaders still in blind "Austerity" mode - ignoring signals left and right, and depending on faith-based Conservative economics to pull them through what is not a debt crisis, but disaster of their own making - too few people with jobs, and too few people with good, secure, well-paying jobs, to purchase beyond their immediate needs.
    People who don't have money or job security don't spend money - except on what they need.

    These are the only Conservatives "Hail Mitt" pass options.

    His ground game from now until Election Day, is to keep the base satisfied by blood, anger, and hatred.

    And if he pulls the "Ryan Plan Option Play," and people understand what's in it, he might have to forfeit the game.

    And so, our treasonous traitors on the right have to hope for another serious attack by Muslims, or an economic collapse of the European economy.
    And then taking political advantage of either, or both, of those.

    Countries have hung traitors for less.

  • stormskies on July 25, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Why is it so hard for anyone to understand two things: (1) that Obama has done the best he can relative to the total obstructionism of the Repiglicans, and (2) that the corporate automaton called buffoon Romney wants to recreate the exact policies, and worse, of Bush ? Including the Ryan budget within it all.

    It's like these 'undecided' voters stupidly saying that despite Obama doing his best in the midst of all the Repiglican obstruction, despite him inheriting the almost total collapse of our economy caused by those Repiglicans, that, gee, we are gonna vote for Romney and the very policies that created that in the first place.

    How fucking stupid can you get ?

  • Gandalf on July 25, 2012 11:39 AM:

    Stormskies I completely agree. How fucking stupid can the american people get?

  • T2 on July 25, 2012 11:41 AM:

    Ghost Candidate - great label, and true. He stands for nothing except making money to donate to LDS.
    What he's counting on are voters like a lady in Florida recently quoted as saying she was against ObamaCare, but just didn't know why. She'll vote for Romney, but she won't know why, either. And when he's president, she'll think he's doing a good job, but she won't be able to say why. When she loses her Medicare and Social Security, she won't know why, either.

  • boatboy_srq on July 25, 2012 11:49 AM:

    @stormskies: when all you get is the Fauxnooze version of things, understanding is just that bit harder. Thank you, Rupert "Goebbels" Murdoch, for coopting our public airwaves and our print media for your propaganda campaign.

    ---------------------------------------------------------

    At this point, the only things we can say for sure about Romney are that he really wants to be pResident, because "it's his turn." ANYTHING else is up for grabs.

    OF COURSE swing voters want to know more. And OF COURSE they're going to be disappointed - not least because Romney doesn't want to admit that he really is the entitled, greedy, self-centred vulture capitalist they fear he is (absent concrete evidence to prove it, which continues to build). So long as Romney keeps hiding things - and hiding them this obviously - he'll never get to "Phase 2" - but the likelihood that if he addressed that, he'd absolutely kill whatever support he holds so far, is so high that it's obviously not an option. The one alternative (outside continued silence) to address the Phase 2 gap that he has is to lie about everything he's done and hope that nobody notices: and since that's been failing pretty spectacularly so far, while we should expect it, doing so isn't likely to change things much.

    I'm beginning to think that the best adjective for Romney is amoral. But that's hardly one that will garner more votes.

  • Jon Gallagher on July 25, 2012 12:02 PM:

    Speaking of Ghost Candidate: (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/mitt-romney/9424524/Mitt-Romney-would-restore-Anglo-Saxon-relations-between-Britain-and-America.html)

    In remarks that may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity, one [ed: Romney Adviser per article]suggested that Mr Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr Obama, whose father was from Africa.
    “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: “The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have”.

    Um, so his advisers are really "going there"?

  • dr sardonicus on July 25, 2012 12:07 PM:

    We have an electoral system in which the only way to cast an effective protest vote against one major party is to vote for the other major party. Also, there are millions who will vote for Romney on the basis of his white skin and nothing else. That is all the GOP believes they need to go over the top.

  • tank on July 25, 2012 12:18 PM:

    Kim Jong Un married to Ri Sol Ju.
    http://www.youtube.com/​watch?v=XyuYdRrPTys

  • meady on July 25, 2012 1:22 PM:

    Yes Romney is the ghost candidate, devoid of any substance. There is literally no reason to vote for this man over Obama and yet he will probably get over 40% of the vote. Honestly, I really don't even buy the "he's better for the economy" meme that the media is trying to sell. In fact I detect a despairation within the media to make this a horse race. Obama is superior to Romney on almost every measurable level. I have Republican friends that know this and will still vote for Romney and twist themselves into pretzels to come up with a rational basis for their intended actions. As in 2008, an undecided voter is a Republican voter in search of a reason to cast their vote. I am hoping against hope that this election is not as clsoe as the media would have us believe. I spent the weekend with a friend who is truly the lowest of low information voters. Her perception of Romney is that he is superficial and "plastic". She doesn't trust a word out of his mouth. She wasn't pro-Obama, but as far as she was concerned, Romney was "fake". Her words not mine. That was gratifying to me as I think the information that is sticking her is what is sticking to middle America. Pollyana-ish I know...

  • RT on July 25, 2012 1:51 PM:

    It's simple: Republicans vote for the party, not for the candidate. I find it curious that so many of them don't come out and say it. Are they ashamed of it?

    [Captcha: "utligt unbelievers"]