BY WILLIAM KRISTOL
Here’s how Reuters recently summed up the race for the White House: “The 2012 presidential election is more than six months away, but here is what we know so far: It is going to be close, it is going to be nasty, and the outcome could turn on a series of unpredictable events.” The argument that followed was balanced and intelligent, and nicely captured today’s conventional wisdom.
But the conventional wisdom may well be wrong. We don’t in fact “know” that the election will be close. Nor do we know that it will be nasty, or that it will turn on unpredictable events. To the contrary, if I had to put money down now, I’d bet that Mitt Romney will win an easy victory after a relatively predictable, issue-focused, and not-too-nasty campaign. Indeed, I’d bet Romney will win precisely if he runs such a campaign. But if he allows the race to degenerate into name-calling and gotcha gimmicks, he could lose. Democrats are better than Republicans at the small and nasty stuff.
If Romney can speak to Americans’ sense that it’s a big moment, with big challenges, and if he can make this a big election rather than a petty one, then he can win—perhaps big. Consider the polling data. For the first quarter of the year, Romney had a relatively tough primary battle. Obama had clear sailing, with little in the way of challenges from congressional Republicans or anyone else. The economic recovery was a bit better than it had been, and there were no obvious foreign policy disasters. These should have been very good months for Obama.
Is it Over?
But he barely improved his status at all. On January 1, 2012, the RealClearPolitics average had Obama ahead of Romney 46.6 to 45 percent. Today, he’s up 47.5 to 44.6 percent—but the momentum is now in Romney’s direction. More important, Obama’s job approval hasn’t benefited much over the last few months. At the beginning of the year, he was at 46.8 percent approve, 47.8 disapprove; he’s now at 47.5 to 47.0, but beginning to slide back toward negative territory.