A truism of American presidential politics is that elections involving an incumbent standing for reelection are driven almost entirely by voters' analyses of the performance of that president. When that president has overseen a poor economy or has failed to meet the electorate's expectations in other policy areas, the president's chances are generally doomed; when the economy is humming and the needs of the people have otherwise been met, the president typically glides to reelection.
However, this truism (one grounded in empirical research) is always accompanied by a caveat. Retrospective voting drives the outcome of an election with an incumbent unless the election somehow becomes framed as a choice between two competing alternatives — the incumbent and his challenger. Because of the missteps of Mitt Romney and the aggressive campaign of Barack Obama, this week Romney was fleshed out as an alternative to the president — and a deeply problematic one at that. If Obama goes on to win reelection in November, this week set the stage for the incumbent to overcome history and political truism.
Until then, election 2012 had followed the rote script for an election with an incumbent in the field. The president's personal likability had propped up his standing to some degree. More importantly, the Obama campaign had done a good job of contextualizing the economic situation on the incumbent's watch, arguing that unemployment would have been considerably worse if not for the president's actions. Still, the campaign was primarily about the president, his policy decisions, and the performance of the sluggish economy on his watch.
Suddenly, this week, the campaign was all about Mitt Romney. First, a series of investigative reports raised questions about whether Romney has been truthful about his retirement from Bain Capital, the venture capital firm that he helped found. Romney has claimed to have departed Bain in 1999 to go "save" the 2002 Winter Olympics; importantly, this precedes the most controversial actions by Bain that resulted in factory closures and outsourcing. A series of SEC filings indicate, however, that Romney remained a principal at the company into 2002.
The questions about his tenure at Bain Capital and his ties to outsourcing have clearly eroded his standing in swing states. However, it appears that the suggestion by Obama campaign communications director Stephanie Cutter that Romney may have committed a felony because of disparities in these SEC reports and other documents caused the presumptive GOP nominee to blow a gasket. His campaign quickly scheduled five interviews on Friday afternoon to address the charges. Instead of clarifying his resume's muddiness, however, Romney weakly demanded an apology from President Obama for his campaign's tactics.
Smelling blood, on Saturday morning, the Obama campaign released one of the more memorable campaign advertisements in years. It masterfully contrasted Romney awkwardly singing "America the Beautiful" with his record in pushing jobs out of America. In addition to smartly reiterating the outsourcing charges, the ad also highlights Romney's personal oddness. I had a flashback to a Des Moines event in 2008 where Romney painfully forgot the words to that same song meant to serve as a crescendo to his speech.
Things only became worse on Sunday morning as Romney surrogate Ed Gillespie attempted to explain the questionable paper trail by saying that Romney had "retired retroactively" from Bain, creating an instant classic in campaignspeak.
At the same time, another ghost from the GOP primary season reappeared. In the spring, Romney's stubbornness about the release of tax returns nearly cost him the nomination. Bleeding badly, he finally released his 2010 return (and will release 2011 as well when it is eventually filed). That action solved the problem for the short run. However, the issue is back as Republicans and Democrats alike are wondering aloud about the release of tax returns going back to the Bain days and suggesting that troubling information must be in the tax returns.
Romney may well clarify his timeline with Bain in a satisfactory manner and he may well release a series of tax returns that, while highlighting his wealth, do no additional harm to his campaign. But, the events of this week make certain that Election 2012 will be a race between two candidates — each with positive and negative attributes — rather than a retrospective analysis of one incumbent.