If you Google the phrase “Romney’s path to the White House,” or if you have simply been paying attention to media coverage of the 2012 US presidential election, you will note that virtually all discussion of how Romney might actually win in November focuses on polling and the electoral college. On first glance of course this makes absolute sense. Reporters and pundits remind us that the race is about the Electoral College, that to understand who has the best chance to win, or how each candidate can win, we need to add up electoral votes to see how many different ways each candidate can get to the magical number of 270. Thanks to interactive touch-screens featuring red-and-blue maps of the 50 (or mostly 48) US states, TV reporters like CNN’s John King or NBC’s Chuck Todd delight themselves (if not their viewers) by endlessly changing the color of various “swing states” to premediate the various combinations of states that could pave the way for Romney or Obama to win the 2012 presidential election. And for most of these combinations, Ohio (or Florida) seems key.
As fond as I am of interactive electoral math and statistical sampling, our current obsession with polling too often detracts our attention from the factors or forces that shape or mobilize the voter sentiment that polls seek to capture. Thus when I express concern about a possible Romney victory, I am reminded by my poll-obsessed friends that Nate Silver still shows Obama with a 70% chance of winning or with nearly 300 electoral votes or that Obama still leads solidly in Ohio and Florida, or that the reliable polls show the race to be much less close than the MSM headlines suggest, and so forth. As if I don’t know those things myself.
But polls are at best measures or simulations or samples of where the electorate stands at a particular moment. While it is true that sites like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight or Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium provide superb historical records of where the polls have been along with their forecasts of where the polls are going, what they are not equipped to do is to imagine or dare I say premediate the various potential affective formations that might cause the polls to move in one direction to the other. That is to say, while such sites do an excellent job of premediating various statistical paths to the presidency, what they are unable to do is to premediate the affective paths, the potential electoral mood or stimmung, that might cause the polls to change, that might propel one or the other candidate to the presidency.
Which brings me to the question: What is Romney’s affective path to the presidency?
From the moment that Romney announced Ryan as his running mate with the retired battleship Wisconsin as their stage, my fear was that the only way a Romney-Ryan ticket could defeat Obama-Biden was to stir up a nationalistic, xenophobic, and fascist mood or structure of feeling among the electorate. And we have seen signs of this at various times, particularly in Romney’s aggressive statements and speeches about Obama’s foreign policy, especially the way he jumped on the Obama administration in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Libyan embassy or his failed attempts to stir up xenophobic feelings about China’s trade tactics.
But in the aftermath of the debate, I see a slightly different version of this affective path emerging, one motivated less (or not only) by fear. Romney’s current affective path to the presidency passes more through a feeling of security in Romney’s leadership, as reflected in the latest Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll of likely voters in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, which showed that in the aftermath of the first debate voters in those states felt that Romney, not Obama, showed greater leadership qualities. Indeed this path is not distinct from the kind of nationalistic affect mentioned above. The current controversy over security failures at the Libyan embassy could provide a way for Romney to link voter confidence in his leadership with geopolitical insecurity or fear–particularly if we were to have an October terrorist surprise that could be used to intensify doubts about Obama’s ability to protect Americans from foreign threats as well as about his ability to lead the nation out of its ongoing economic crisis.
This is my fear–that Romney is succeeding in presenting himself in the image of the stern but caring white patriarch that has been one of the leading affective manifestations of the American presidency. Romney’s current strategy of projecting an affectivity of certainty, determination, and purpose irrespective of facts or consistency seems to be working in persuading voters that he, not Obama, is best positioned to lead the country through the next four years. To counteract the intensification and amplification of this electoral mood the Obama campaign needs to fight Romney on affective not cognitive turf. Pointing out the inconsistencies in Romney’s positions on the issues, or even calling him out on the specifics of his lies, can work to reinforce the feelings of Obama supporters that they are right in preferring Obama over Romney but does little or nothing to change the mood of the electorate.
What then can be done? For one, Obama needs to project his own counter-mood of leadership, underscoring in strong, unhesitant language the economic and geopolitical leadership his administration has provided in leading America out of the mess that Bush had left for him. He needs to underscore in no uncertain terms how Obamacare and his position on tax fairness provides protection and security for the vast majority of Americans. And the Obama campaign (including, I would argue, Biden and Obama in the coming debates) needs to return to the questions of Romney’s dishonesty and self-serving behavior, hammering home the failure to disclose his taxes, for example, and even perhaps creating some doubt about his beholdenness to the Mormon Church.
Where Kerry was Swift-Boated, Romney needs to be 1040ed. Most of this work will need to be performed by surrogates. But it needs to be performed. The strategy to derail the Romney-Ryan train does not lie in calling them out on the details of their lies, their inconsistencies, or their lack of specifics but on casting doubt on or better yet disrupting the affective narrative they continue to tell about their strong, paternalistic leadership. A two-pronged affective strategy of presenting Obama as a firm but caring leader and making Romney and Ryan look self-serving and dishonest will help them to secure the support of women and minority voters, to weaken Romney’s support among independents, and consequently to pave an affective path to the White House that will manifest itself clearly and decisively not only in the mood of the electorate but in the electoral statistics, graphs. and maps that so many of us love so very much.