During most of the Republican primary, one of the main lines of attack against Romney by the more conservative candidates focused on Romney’s potential inability to distinguish himself from Obama. Certainly, now that each campaign has taken the “gloves” off we can see distinguishing the two candidates has not been a problem. The media has an interest in playing up the conflict between the two campaigns in favor of some academic and limitedly useful narrative about the two candidates being similar. That conflict has surrounded around the obvious: healthcare, taxes, Romney’s time at Bain, Obama’s handling of the economy and commentary on the political conflicts of the day (e.g., fast and furious). Unsurprisingly, many of the attacks provide for a great deal of a sizzle, but little else. In the worst cases, attacks with the least substance actually rely on partisan about-faces. While these rhetorical battles over cable media have drawn clear partisan lines in the sand for the media and attentive followers, they have done little to grab the public’s attention and move numbers.
The most meaningful battle ought to be over the economy. However, there are big problems with this simple statement (which is so often repeated with such confidence one might be forgiven to assume its irreproachability). Yes, in general, the state of economy is unquestionably the most salient issue in voter’s minds, but it is unclear how we correlate the economic data with voting. Unemployment numbers are frequently used and will be harped on by the Republicans, but the continued release of unhappy unemployment numbers do not seem to be terribly effective in impacting Obama’s political numbers. But monthly unemployment reports are not the only economic measuring tool, nor are they arguably the best. Not by a long shot. Rather, they are an easy topic of conversation for pundits to pontificate about each month. Actually measuring the state of economy and how it will impact voters is a far more complicated process, as described by The New York Times’ Nate Silver.
What is most striking to me comes from a Fox News poll that shows voter’s confidence in each candidate’s “plan for the economy.” While Obama’s numbers were low, with only 41 percent saying he has a clear plan for the economy, Romney’s numbers were even worse. Only 27 percent said that Romney had a clear plan for the economy. This is a critical number for a campaign that is running as the immediate solution to the “Obama economy” problem. At the end of this election, Romney has no choice but to actually introduce himself and something that resembles a cogent plan for the economy. His reluctance to go into any detail now is smart. The Democrats can not criticize a plan that has yet to be detailed, and criticism for being vague is far from salient. But “the plan” has to come out right after voters begin to pay attention and before the media landscape becomes totally unwieldy.