It’s the Middle Class, Stupid
How Romney and Ryan alienated average Americans.
On election day morning, the bell rang and there was yet another volunteer for Barack Obama reminding me to vote. It was probably the fifth time in recent months that an Obama volunteer had stopped by to chat up me or my wife. I was starting to think they might move in with us.
The explanations for Obama’s victory are many, but arguably begin with his superior ground game. I was actually contacted many more times by Mitt Romney’s campaign, as my Democratic-leaning zipcode includes many wealthy Republicans. But it was all old-school stuff: I was showered with Romney mailers and literature and robocalls, but received almost none of this from Obama. Romney’s old-fashioned, top-down style of campaigning seemed to echo his proposed economic policies
Recent research has found that blanketing a neighborhood with campaign literature has no impact and that automated calls generate one vote per 900 calls. By contrast, one study found Obama’s network of small, inexpensive field offices made a one percentage point difference in his national vote in 2008. In key states like Ohio, Obama had a huge advantage over Romney in field offices.
Yes, all of this makes Romney look as outdated as his gosh and golly style of speaking, but it’s not the major reason he lost. On paper, he was the nightmare opponent for Obama, a successful businessman promising more jobs running against a president struggling mightily to improve the economy. But Romney’s central message was overshadowed by all the positions he was forced to take by the Republican primary and all the crazy Republican senatorial candidate comments on abortion and rape he couldn’t condemn.
Thus, the once-moderate Massachusetts governor had to repudiate his own health care plan. Oppose a one dollar increase in taxes in exchange for nine dollars in spending cuts. Condemn higher taxes for the wealthy. Support voucherizing Medicare. Take a hard line against abortion, even when the health of the mother is in danger. Support a state and private- sector takeover of FEMA, which looked heartless as Hurricane Sandy pummeled America.
True, Romney reinforced the story line with gaffe after gaffe. His comment that those who can’t afford college should just borrow money from their parents made his opposition to increasing Pell grants look particularly clueless. And his infamous comment that 47 percent of Americans feel entitled to federal help buttressed the narrative of Mitt as someone who doesn’t care about the middle class.
But the bigger problem was the hard-right party and platform he represented, all given a steelier edge with his choice of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as vice-president. One analysis of Ryan’s voting record found he was the least centrist member of Congress chosen for the vice-presidential slot since at least 1900.
Ryan’s vaunted budget plan combines a massive, $4 trillion spending cut in countless federal programs benefitting average Americans, generous new tax cuts for the wealthy and tax hikes for low-income folks. It slashes federal spending on both Medicare and Medicaid, which besides its payments to low-income people, is a major funder of long-term care and nursing homes for the elderly. Not surprisingly, Ryan gets just a six percent positive ranking from the Alliance for Retired Americans.
With Ryan as running mate, it became all the more difficult for Romney to be about jobs and the economy. Late in the campaign, as Romney attempted to move more toward the middle, Ryan was suddenly spending less time in swing states and assigned to campaign fund-raisers in red states.
There is little evidence Ryan did anything even to help Romney in Wisconsin. The seven point victory margin for Obama in this state is actually higher than what polls showed before Ryan was selected. Wisconsin has less college educated and far more manufacturing workers than the average state; polls show they supported the auto industry bailout and clearly didn’t feel Romney-Ryan cared as much about the middle class as Obama-Biden.
There will be lots of talk about Ryan for president it 2016, but it is arguably another rising star from Wisconsin, Scott Walker, whose pitch to reduce government benefits has more appeal to the American middle class than Ryan’s gutting of federal entitlements.
Meanwhile, we should not lose sight of this nation making history again by reelecting an African American for president. Second terms can often lose momentum, but they can also provide the chance to achieve a Mount Rushmore-like standing. And Barack Obama has repeatedly proven he has the smarts and steely discipline needed to seize such opportunities.
This column was first published by the Madison weekly Isthmus.
-For another view: Longtime reporter Jack Norman offers some jaw-dropping stats showing more than 80 percent of Obama’s margin came from the City of Milwaukee, showing just how effective Obama’s ground game was. It reveals that the rest of the state was almost evenly divided and also suggests Obama’s coat-tails carried Tammy Baldwin to victory.