Tacking to the Big Donors

Paul Ryan CaricatureSince football season steadfastly refuses to start, the only real diversion left to me right now is politics, my second favorite sport. I thought I might take a shot at sizing things up one last time before toe finally meets leather and the trivial matter of who will be our next president will forfeit any claim it may have held on the rapidly shrinking bandwidth of my attention span.

As fundamentally artificial enterprises from the get-go, presidential campaigns are always fertile ground for paradoxes and contradictions, and this one is surely no exception. For starters, at this stage, it is not the ostensibly bleeding-hart liberal champion of the common folk, Barack Obama, but Mitt Romney, the uber-rich, supposedly out-of-touch elitist, who enjoys a commanding lead among blue-collar whites. Meanwhile, instead of reaching out to Independents and centrist Democrats disenchanted with Obama by stressing what seems to be a fairly decent record as a moderate Republican governor of a traditionally Democratic state, Romney is actually distancing himself from that achievement in favor of reinventing himself as a hard-core, gun-loving, entitlement-hating arch-conservative in order to ingratiate himself with the wild-eyed Teabaggers and the well-heeled financiers of the way-yonder Far Right. His strategists’ appraisal his success in this venture may be divined in his choice of a running mate whose ideal government is armed to the teeth and spoiling for a fight but otherwise too puny and impoverished to be of any real consequence domestically. Ryan is clearly no Sarah Palin (Come to think of it, who is other than perhaps Dan Quayle with a little lipstick and some snazzy black pumps?), but this choice smacks of a rather desperate late-in-the-fray attempt to “secure the base,” such as we witnessed from the McCain camp four years ago.

Meanwhile, Harry Reid’s suggestion that the ol’ Mittster may not have paid any taxes in several recent years was either the political equivalent of a colossally ballsy poker bluff or a carefully calculated move based on definite indications that something in Romney’s returns would not bear public scrutiny. I found the move distasteful personally, although my sympathy for the Repubs is dulled somewhat by the recollection of the swift-boating of John Kerry in 2004 and the “birther” and “closet-Muslim” whispering campaigns against Obama four years later. At any rate, now that Mitt has investigated himself and revealed that he never paid less than 13 percent in taxes for the years in question and Ms. R has nixed the prospect of any further such disclosures, it remains to be seen how the Dems will play out their hand. Early indications seem to be that they will keep on insisting that Romney’s refusal to go public with his actual tax forms suggests that he is hiding something rather than jumping on the fact that he feels vindicated by reporting that, over the years in question, he typically paid roughly one-third the nominal rate for his income group and one-half the effective rate that most of us pay.

How all of the above goes down with the voters is still anybody’s guess at this point. Elections geek Nate Silver at 538.com notes that Romney has moved up some in several recent polls and projections of the outcome. Even his own forecast model, which has been fairly “bearish” on Romney heretofore, saw his chances of winning rise from 27 to 31 percent over the last few days. Still by Silver’s calculation, the typical “bump” in the polls from picking a running mate works out to be around 4 points. To date, polls taken since the Ryan announcement show only a cumulative average gain for Romney of 1 percent.

There are, however, post-Ryan-pick polls in the key states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia that show Romney gaining from 4 to 6 points. Before-and-after polls can come down to comparing apples and oranges, of course. Rasmussen Reports typically tilts toward the Republicans while any poll showing Obama (or any Democrat for that matter) leading among “registered voters” is due less credence than one showing him ahead among “likely voters.” In fact, Democrats who come up short have often had to settle for what consolation there may be in knowing that they were the clear choice of those who never managed to register, much less vote. A new Suffolk University/USA Today survey shows that among the unregistered, Obama tops Romney by a 3 to 1 margin and leads him more than 2 to 1 among those who are registered but don’t expect to vote. Here, in a nutshell, is why Republican leaders in a number of key states have pushed measures that are all but certain to curtail voter participation. Not for nothing did a GOP legislator hail the passage of a strict voter-ID law “which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” Suffice it to say, it is not just supporters who might stay home on election day, but those who show up and aren’t allowed to vote that have some Democrats’ knickers in disarray.

All of this is to say that what we have right now is roughly equal parts educated guess and mere speculation. We clearly have no sense yet whether the Ryan bounce is significant or lasting enough for the approaching GOP convention to build upon it. The folks over at RealClearPolitics.com still see enough states solid, likely, or leaning to Obama at this point to give him 237 electoral votes as opposed to Romney’s 191. Nine remaining “toss-up” states account for 110 electoral votes, more than enough to give Romney the requisite 270, but the RCP’ers see him claiming only 15 of those, leaving Obama with a final tally of 322 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. If, given all the foregoing complexities and uncertainties, you are ready to lay some serious cash money down on that outcome, then by all means, go for it. Personally, as befits my preternatural caution, I’m likely to confine my wagering to something a little more predictable, such as, let’s say, the over/under on how many times Steve Spurrier throws his visor this fall or, better yet, how many participants in the Auburn-Clemson game will earn more this year than I do.

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Image credit: Paul Ryan Caricature by DonkeyHotey from his flickr photostream and used under creative commons license.
Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at www.cobbloviate.com.