CHICAGO — President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney spent the last few days frantically barnstorming swing states for every last undecided voter, but the election’s outcome will hinge more centrally on crucial turning points over the course of a multiyear campaign.
These are the victories and defeats and calculated statements of the last many months, the uncontrollable events and debate blunders and gaffes caught on video. They add up to a portrait of the contenders for the White House that has shaped their public image, for better and for worse.
The incumbent’s chances for a second White House term will turn on decisions he made during his first term, when he bailed out the auto industry, rammed a health care bill through Congress, and blundered by issuing an excessively rosy forecast for economic recovery and promising to reduce the deficit. He gained strength after Special Operations forces killed Osama bin Laden and the economy slowly, steadily improved. Then he undermined his own foundation with a startlingly weak debate performance in October.
Romney encountered his own key moments that defined his second bid for the presidency. He campaigned as someone who could correct the economic and policy mistakes of the Democrat in office, but at important junctures, his stances on immigration, women’s reproductive rights, and foreign policy did not always work to his advantage. He played to public anger over corporate bailouts in 2008 and 2009 and opposed the rescue of Detroit, only to have the issue haunt him in Ohio.
His secretly recorded remarks at a Boca Raton, Fla., fund-raiser in May — in which he casually dismissed 47 percent of the electorate as self-described victims who fail to take personal responsibility — sent his campaign reeling for weeks. Romney recovered strongly in his three debates with Obama. Then Hurricane Sandy swirled out of the Caribbean, sucked away the media’s attention, and gave Obama a platform to shine as a strong leader in a disaster, altering the race yet again.
These are the key chapters that have shaped our opinions of the candidates, giving us glimpses of their intellects, their instincts, their trustworthiness. Collectively, they contributed to an overall narrative that will either help or hinder Obama and Romney as they seek to turn out their supporters today in an exceedingly close contest.
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, said this has been a campaign that was surprisingly dominated by surprises, from the 47 percent video, to Romney’s strong performance in the first debate, to Hurricane Sandy.
“These campaigns are about the unexpected and maybe that is the way it is supposed to be,” he said. “Once we expect something, it is baked into the cake. It is the surprises that tend to shake up the race and we have had a lot of surprises this year. The 47 percent tape — who knew that was there?
“We put all this attention on the TV ads and the normal political analysis, and then we have twists and turns and news that have moved the results more than anything else.”
Obama’s response to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the weak recovery from recession have been central issues in the campaign. The president produced the $787 billion stimulus package and the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts, and continued to manage the Wall Street TARP bailout; these were politically risky, but the president saw them as crucial to pulling the economy back from the brink of a depression.
In a politically pivotal moment that occurred even before Obama assumed office, his transition staff predicted unemployment would peak at just under 8 percent if Congress approved the stimulus. In fact, unemployment peaked at 10 percent and remained above 8 percent for most of Obama’s term — a miscalculation that Republicans used against him for his entire term, calling it evidence that the stimulus had not lived up to its promise.
The bailouts, the stimulus, and “Obamacare’’ stoked the anger of conservatives and led to the Tea Party’s sweeping victories in the 2010 congressional elections and the Republican takeover of the House.When Romney began his campaign, he sought to tap that natural energy with strong rhetoric about shrinking the size of government, reducing taxes, and preventing illegal immigration.
After placing a close second in Iowa and winning New Hampshire, Romney lost South Carolina amid a flurry of attacks over his wealth and business career. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, assailed Romney over his refusal to release his taxes, and Governor Rick Perry of Texas branded him a “vulture capitalist,’’ which dovetailed with the Obama campaign’s portrayal of Romney as a corporate raider who shuttered factories and shipped jobs overseas.
Romney continued to tack toward the right as he successfully fought off Gingrich in Florida. At a subsequent conference of conservative Republicans in Washington in February, he declared himself “severely conservative.’’
Yet the hard line that Romney adopted on immigration — placing himself to the right of both Perry and Gingrich — has damaged his standing among Hispanics, according to polls that show Obama with a big lead among that fast-growing demographic. If the trend holds true in the election, it would mark a major disappointment for Republicans, who had hoped to seize upon Obama’s failure to pass immigration reform as a general election issue.
Campaigning in the first-caucus state of Iowa, Romney promised that, if passed, he would veto the DREAM Act, a measure backed by Obama that would provide a pathway to citizenship to children brought illegally to the United States by their parents who met certain conditions, such as having no criminal record and meeting educational requirements.
Then, in a Republican debate in Florida, Romney said “the answer is self-deportation,” as opposed to sending law enforcement to track illegal immigrants down and force them from the United States. The statement was criticized by some who said it sent a message to millions of Hispanics that they were unwanted, and by others for being too vague.
Obama, sensing an opening, signed an order on June 15 to prevent the deportations of many younger illegal immigrants. Romney, asked at the time whether he backed Obama’s move, avoided answering directly.
In the jousting for seniors’ votes, Republicans turned an Obamacare provision — a reduction of $716 billion in Medicare spending for providers and insurers — into an attack by Obama on the program itself. The Obama campaign fired back that the Romney-Ryan plan to introduce vouchers for private insurance into Medicare would “end Medicare as we know it.”
Among another crucial voting bloc — women — Romney has done a better job of closing the gap with Obama after the primary. The Republican was suffering a deficit with women after the primary campaign, which focused tightly on issues of abortion and contraception. But after the first debate with Obama, when Romney suddenly struck a newly moderate tone and reintroduced himself to an estimated 70 million TV viewers, his standing among women shot up.
“Whether it was carefully calculated or his own persona of not being a nasty guy, that helps,’’ said David Woodard, a polling expert and political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. “He’s got the looks and all that kind of stuff, and he’s not scary.’’ After that, however, ill-considered remarks by a Republican Senate candidate in Indiana about rape and abortion hurt the party’s brand on women’s issues.
Obama’s role as commander in chief gave him a built-in advantage to demonstrate leadership at a complex and dangerous time for American security and foreign affairs. The May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which he authorized, was a triumph.
Without any foreign policy or military background, Romney began the campaign at a disadvantage. And his inexperience appeared to show immediately after the Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Romney criticized the Obama administration as “disgraceful” shortly after the attack, accusing the State Department of apologizing to Islamic governments instead of condemning the assault.
Romney was roundly criticized for injecting politics into an overseas crisis. Yet over time, as attention fell on the Obama administration’s shifting explanations of the attack, what once seemed to be a major setback for Romney has turned into a nagging issue for the president.
“The Benghazi incident challenged the edge Obama had created on foreign policy,’’ said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
But then came the last turning point of all: a late-October storm, Hurricane Sandy. The discussion in the media about whether Obama could fend off Romney’s strong surge in the polls quickly gave way to images of Obama touring the devastation with none other than Chris Christie, the Republican New Jersey governor who is an ally of Romney’s.
“The hurricane and the devastation it wrought enabled Obama to end the campaign as president, acting presidential, and (in the eyes of most voters, the polls say) effectively,’’ said Beck. “Governor Christie helped support this image of a president effectively in command.’’
That last bump of positive public relations could help Obama win reelection, affirm the current conventional wisdom that he is ahead, and put an end to the narrative of this campaign.
Or perhaps Americans will put Romney over the top.