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Why Is This Election Close?

For a long time I have been predicting that Mitt Romney would get the Republican nomination, and that he would then win the general election. I have said that the election will be reasonably close–demographic realities dictate that all national elections will be reasonably close, for the foreseeable future–but not a squeaker; more like 2004 than 2000. Given President Obama’s dismal record, that seemed like a safe prediction.

But it now appears that the election will be very close after all, and that Obama might even win it. It will require a few more days to assess the effects (if any) of the parties’ two conventions, but for now it looks as though the Democrats emerged with at least a draw, despite a convention that was in some ways a fiasco. In today’s Rasmussen survey, Obama has regained a two point lead over Romney, 46%-44%. Scott Rasmussen writes:

The president is enjoying a convention bounce that has been evident in the last two nights of tracking data. He led by two just before the Republican convention, so he has already erased the modest bounce Romney received from his party’s celebration in Tampa. Perhaps more significantly, Democratic interest in the campaign has soared. For the first time, those in the president’s party are following the campaign as closely as GOP voters.

So the Democrats’ red meat, over-the-top attacks on Republicans apparently worked at least as well as the Republicans’ more positive, low-key approach.

On paper, given Obama’s record, this election should be a cakewalk for the Republicans. Why isn’t it? I am afraid the answer may be that the country is closer to the point of no return than most of us believed. With over 100 million Americans receiving federal welfare benefits, millions more going on Social Security disability, and many millions on top of that living on entitlement programs–not to mention enormous numbers of public employees–we may have gotten to the point where the government economy is more important, in the short term, than the real economy. My father, the least cynical of men, used to quote a political philosopher to the effect that democracy will work until people figure out they can vote themselves money. I fear that time may have come.

At National Review, Andy McCarthy poses the same question–why isn’t this election a landslide?–and posits a somewhat different explanation. Andy faults today’s Republicans for not being principled enough, or conservative enough:

After a first term that has been historically abysmal, President Obama stands a good chance of being reelected. How can that be?

Here is the blunt explanation: We have lost a third of the country and, as if that weren’t bad enough, Republicans act as if it were two-thirds.

The lost third cannot be recovered overnight. For now, it is gone. You cannot cede the campus and the culture to the progressive, post-American Left for two generations and expect a different outcome. …

Certainly, the media, the academy, and most of our society’s major institutions are heavily influenced by progressives, if not outright controlled by them. It is therefore a given that elite opinion will portray Republicans as villains. Yet, that longstanding challenge for Republicans has never before been an insuperable one. In America, at least until now, the avant-garde has never been able to tame the public. It has always been possible to run against elite opinion and win — if you make a compelling counter-case.

Today’s Republicans do not. Indeed, they cannot, because they have accepted the progressive framework. Their argument is not that the welfare state, deficit spending, federalized education, sharia-democracy promotion, and the rest are bad policies. Their argument is not that Washington needs to be dramatically downsized. It is that progressive governance is fine but needs to be better executed.

Ain’t that something to rally around! The counter-case is supposed to demonstrate why the other guys are deeply wrong. You’re not going to get very far with “We’re not as bad as they say we are.”

Like Andy, I would love to see a radical down-sizing and reorienting of the federal government that would tame, if not abolish, the welfare state at the federal level. But is that really a practical suggestion for this year’s campaign? Would a “phase out Medicare” platform really carry the Romney-Ryan ticket to victory? I don’t think so. Further, I don’t think the problem in this year’s race is “elite opinion,” which, as Andy says, conservatives have been able to overcome rather consistently in the past, and is probably in more disrepute today than ever. I am afraid the problem in this year’s race is economic self-interest: we are perilously close to the point where 50% of our population cares more about the money it gets (or expects to get) from government than about the well-being of the nation as a whole. Throw in a few confused students, pro-abortion fanatics, etc., and you have a Democratic majority.

Maybe this anxiety is misplaced. President Obama has never been able to rise above 47% support in the polls, and perhaps when November comes undecided voters will break against the incumbent, as the conventional wisdom has it. Maybe the election won’t be so close after all. We’d all better hope so. Because, given the rate at which Democrats are frantically adding to the dependency state, another four years of Obama may be enough to tip the balance between the private sector and government dependence once and for all.

UPDATE: More here.

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