Obama vs. Romney in 2012 Contest: More Engineers Than Ideas

Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Mitt Romney and President Obama walk past each other on stage at the end of the last debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.

We are ending a campaign in which more than $3 billion likely has been spent, and yet it has been remarkably small bore. Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney has advanced a single big idea.

There is no New Deal, Fair Deal, Morning in America, New Covenant or Compassionate Conservatism. Instead there are “plans” which consist either of a power-point slide show or a hastily cobbled together booklet of previous proposals.

The mechanics of politics has given us more. More ads. More mail. More visits at the door. More outlets to discuss politics.

The campaigns have given us less.

The presidency is about inspiration and aspiration, and these candidates have provided little evidence of either.

For Romney, the challenge is simple: Is he likable enough? He has the most favorable, negative set of economic circumstances a challenger could hope for, because nothing fuels voter animus like anxiety over one’s well-being.

For Obama, it’s more complicated. No, he isn’t the transformative candidate of 2008. But will more voters think he deserves to get fired, particularly in favor of a candidate who said he enjoys firing people? He retains a large reserve of good will among a majority of the public, unlike other incumbents who have been tossed out.

The money spent may simply have yielded the political equivalent of mutual assured destruction, a net zero. And yet, when the candidates would have traditionally been spending time talking to actual voters, they were mixing in appearances at fundraisers and kept asking for money on line up to the last minute.

The money has been so plentiful that it has created a lot of false narratives, because neither side has had to make a really hard strategic choice like pulling out of a state entirely. With a super-PAC at the ready, one can always play in Pennsylvania.

Where money may have been better spent is in generating turnout, particularly because of early voting. The targeting of ads that Google does on its email seems quaint when compared with the 600-plus data points the Obama campaign has on every voter it is targeting.

This is also a cycle where voters are now attuned to the views of statisticians as much as pundits and traditional polls.

It’s Bill James vs. George Gallup.

Forecasting models are now competing with random digit dialing, and somebody is going to be wrong when the results are clear.

Social media muscled into the political conversation in a way that left no barriers to entry as a pundit. A lot of it was clutter, but there were also clear trends identified, as when Democrats were so openly critical of Obama’s performance in the first debate in Denver.

But elections aren’t supposed to be about who has the better engineers.

They are supposed to be about who has the better ideas.


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