Swing voters ponder the last four years

Two very different interpretations of the last four years show how the race will be decided

Published June 21, 2012 2:02PM (EDT)

What the Romney-Obama race really boils down to is a battle between blame and context.

The Romney campaign, as I’ve been writing, is banking on the tendency of economically anxious swing voters to turn on the guy in charge and latch on to the opposition candidate as a vehicle for their frustrations. This is why Romney is not exactly straining himself to spell out detailed policy positions and proposals. The idea is to avoid being identified with controversial and potentially divisive views and to focus on stoking the outrage of swing voters over how rotten “Obama’s economy” is. If they want to blame Obama, the thinking goes, these voters will find a way to rationalize it and support Romney; no coherent policy blueprint needed.

There’s a lot to be said for this formula. Their sense of how the economy is doing tends to shape how genuine swing voters shape their perceptions of a campaign – much more than ads, speeches, debates, gaffes and daily message wars do. More than anything else, this is why the race is so close and is expected to remain so through the fall, barring an unforeseen economic jolt.

A new AP poll, for instance, puts Obama 3 points up on Romney, 47 to 44 percent. This is consistent with just about every other poll taken, and suggests that a poll released Wednesday showing Obama ahead by 13 really was an outlier. A quote from one of the voters surveyed by AP, which Greg Sargent flagged this morning, captures perfectly the thinking that the Romney campaign is encouraging:

“I’m not going to vote for Obama,” said Raymond Back, a 60-year-old manufacturing plant manager from North Olmsted, Ohio... “I don’t know what Romney is going to do, but this isn’t the right way.”

It isn’t clear if Back is a swing voter or a Republican, so it’s possible he’s mainly expressing a partisan bias here. But his words are the exact words that Romney wants on swing voters’ minds when they head to the voting booth in November.

On the flip side is Obama’s strategy, which depends on these same swing voters balancing their anxiety and frustration with an appreciation of context – the fact that Obama inherited an economy that was in the midst of a Great Depression-like crash, that the mess came on his Republican predecessor’s watch, that congressional Republicans have ignored his pleas to pass his jobs bill, that Romney’s own business background involved more than just “job creation,” that a Romney victory empowers the same forces that held sway during the Bush years, and so on.

There’s also something to be said for this formula. As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck have demonstrated, Obama seems to be stronger politically than a president presiding over such lousy economic conditions should be. The most likely explanation: They remember the meltdown of 2008 and understand how deep the hole was when Obama came to office. This is reflected in a swing voter quote that Bloomberg collected from one of the respondents to its poll this week:

“Obama is the lesser of two evils,” says Rosean Smith, 38, an independent voter from Columbus, Ohio, who says Obama faced unrealistic expectations on the economy. “He was basically handed a sick drug baby and expected to make a genius out of it overnight.”

The election will be determined by whose interpretation of the last four years is most prevalent among swing voters: Raymond Back’s or Rosean Smith’s.

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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