Can Mitt win doing nothing?

Romney is testing whether a vague campaign can unseat an incumbent when the economy is rotten

Published June 15, 2012 12:43PM (EDT)

The results of a focus group should be taken with a grain of salt, but they also can be useful in understanding the emotions behind mass opinion.

Last week, a focus group of undecided female voters in Nevada commissioned by Wal-Mart provided encouragement for President Obama, with several participants suggesting he hadn’t had enough time to address the massive problems he inherited – a sentiment that his reelection hopes probably depend on. Now comes a new one from veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, which included 12 undecided voters in Colorado, 10 of whom supported Obama in 2008. This one is more ominous for the president.

According to Hart’s memo, only four of Obama’s 10 original supporters are still strongly committed to him. Three of the potential defectors are easily explained – two Republicans who contributed to the landslide scale of his ’08 win and a Mormon who feels a religious kinship with Mitt Romney. But the other three are “philosophically in [Obama’s] corner but disappointed in his leadership and, quite frankly, in the campaign for re-election.”

Hart contends that they’re going wobbly because Obama has offered “no road map, no program, and no conviction of where [he] wants to lead the country.” There absolutely may be something to this, although it’s also fair to wonder if swing voters like these are actually just looking for a rationalization to turn on Obama – that their intense economic anxiety makes them prone to blame the president and that if he were to lay out a bold and dramatic road map, they’d simply find another reason to deem him a disappointment.

This is the phenomenon on which Romney’s strategy relies. And Hart’s focus group offers a hint of just how low the bar might be for the presumptive GOP nominee. According to the memo, participants see Romney as a “stiff and formal” “stick figure” and don’t associate him with any specific policy ideas. “Few would opt to go to a ballgame with him over Obama,” Hart writes, “and those who WOULD go with Romney are looking for free food and drink.” And yet he might end up winning two-thirds of the votes of this group of undecided swing state voters.

In a way, the Romney campaign is a grand-scale political science experiment. When economic anxiety and pessimism are rampant, swing voters tend to break against the incumbent president. By running an intentionally vague and generic campaign – one that apparently considers the idea of laying out specific and coherent policy ideas an unacceptable political risk – Romney is calculating that it really doesn’t take anything more than a 98.6 degree body temperature for a challenger to succeed in a climate like this. Obama, by contrast, needs these voters to consider context – the scale of the mess he inherited, which party made that mess, how Republicans in Congress have obstructed his agenda, what Romney is (and isn’t) offering.

It’s just one piece of evidence, but the Colorado focus group is a reminder that Romney has the easier task. That doesn’t mean he’s going to win, but by doing almost nothing, he’s going to at least come close.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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