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Must-Win Swing Districts

Virginia's Bellwether Battleground

Why Loudoun County is a Must-Win for Obama and Romney

This election will be decided by swing voters in swing districts of swing states.  The second installment of OutFront's election series The Final Factors took me to the key swing district of Virgina - Loudoun County. This is the heart of the new northern Virginia - fast growing, increasingly diverse and wealthy after a decade of defense spending.  It voted for President Obama by 11,500 votes in 2008 - making him the first Democrat to win the Old Dominion State since LBJ.  Unemployment is now 4% - half the national average.  But the swing voters here are feeling the heat from the looming automatic defense cuts set to kick in next year.  

"This is going to be as serious a problem to our north Virginia region as the fallout of the car industry was to Detroit," Hammler says. "It will be small businesses like ours that are going to be hit the most. Two million jobs will be lost, half of which will be from small companies. We'll be hit earliest and hardest."

Hammler blames sequestration on congressional division and dysfunction: "It's as if there are certain factions within the parties who are setting things up where because of the pressure of the next primary, because of the pressure of the election, there's no incentive for compromise and collaboration to find meaningful solutions to complex problems."  

Veep Debate

The Pressure's on Biden in Kentucky

Will Biden get through the night without a gaffe, and still land a couple punches on Ryan? Or will the policy wonk prevail?

Margaret and I weigh in at CNN on what Ryan and Biden need to accomplish in tonight’s vice-presidential debate.

With Pew showing “slippage” among voters under this year, Margaret advises Biden to aim his pitch directly at them:

"Millennials understand that the spending policies of the last four decades amount to "generational theft," that debt and deficits are unsustainable.

"They understand that at the current rate, the promises that have been made about Social Security and Medicare won't be available to them when they are ready to retire -- and what's worse, they will be expected to pay for the baby boomers' party in the form of higher taxes, a more sluggish economy, or both.

"That's why Paul Ryan should look at the camera and make the case that fresh thinking can save the next generation from missing out on the economic prosperity they expect. We don't have to accept diminished economic prosperity for the next several decades."

And, of course, the 27-year age difference between the 69-year-old vice president and his 42-year-old challenger should help drive that point home.

At the other podium, Biden has the heavier lift tonight, in my opinion:

"Biden is best when talking to a union hall in Ohio or Pennsylvania, but this debate will be watched by undecided swing voters across the nation. That's the audience Biden has to reach and resonate with in an effort to shift momentum away from Team Mitt and bring passion, clarity and contrast back to the Obama campaign."

What Revenue Neutrality?

Mitt’s Military Budget Hypocrisy

Romney’s pledge to increase military spending by 4 percent of GDP would add at least $2 trillion to federal spending over 10 years. That invalidates every specific cut he has proposed—and the math doesn’t begin to add up, says John Avlon.

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s deft first debate there’s been a lot of belated questions about whether his promises make sense in terms of, you know, math.

Romney 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event at the Shelby County Fairgrounds in Sidney, Ohio, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (Mike Munden / AP Photo)

After all, a core claim of the Romney campaign is this: “Getting our fiscal house in order has become more than just an economic issue; it’s a moral imperative.” As a Bowles-Simpson-style deficit hawk, I appreciate the sentiment about reducing the generational theft of deficits and debt. It’s the policy hypocrisy I can’t stand.

So for the moment, let’s put aside the very reasonable question about whether Mitt can simultaneously cut taxes 20 percent, and keep the cuts revenue-neutral by closing unspecified loopholes, all while progressivity in place. Let’s assume he’s a wizard, as Jon Stewart suggests and move to something even more contradictory and concrete—military spending.

This week, Mitt reiterated one of his most expensive and longstanding political panders—a commitment to increase military spending to 4 percent of GDP—adding at least $2 trillion to federal spending over 10 years.

The audacity of the etch-a-sketch meant that this specific budget-busting promise was so big that it almost went unchallenged—and certainly it hasn’t yet reached the level of mainstream, Main Street debate.

But let’s put it this way—a million dead Big Birds wouldn’t begin to compensate for this new expense. In fact, it single-handedly invalidates every specific cut he has proposed—which essentially consists of social conservative low-hanging fruit like “eliminating Title X Family Planning Funding” ($300 million), reducing foreign aid ($100 million), privatizing Amtrak ($1.6 billion) and reducing “Subsidies For the National Endowments for the Arts And Humanities, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, And the Legal Services Corporation ($600 Million). And of course, we can’t forget the pricetag placed by the Romney campaign on the not yet fully-implemented Obamacare ($95 billion). You do the math.

Even if you believe Mitt on the magically paid for, completely painless $5 trillion tax cut, adding in this specific commitment to spend more than ever before on our military puts us on the path to further future deficits.

In Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, high-stakes Senate campaigns may tip the scales in the presidential contest, writes John Avlon.

As you nervously pour over swing-state presidential polls, don’t forget to factor in one crucial variable—the rest of the statewide ticket. 

Mitt Romney Campaigning in Ohio

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally outside the Cuyahoga Falls Natatorium in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, Oct. 9, 2012. (Shannon Stapleton, Reuters / Landov)

Call it down-ticket coattails. Because President Obama and Mitt Romney are not running in a vacuum. They are going to fly with or against prevailing winds in each swing state. And if a statewide senatorial or gubernatorial candidate is riding high, it makes the hurdle the presidential candidate has to clear in a tight race that much steeper or easier, depending on the down-ticket dynamic. 

Take a closer look at the three biggest swing states at stake this year: Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. All three have Senate races in play. And while the presidential polls are tightening, the Senate races are not nearly as close. 

In Florida, Democrat incumbent Bill Nelson has enjoyed a steady lead over Congressman Connie Mack Jr. for months, opening an 11-point margin in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, taken Oct. 3. If that lead holds, Mitt Romney would need to win at least one in eight of Nelson’s supports to split their ticket to win the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes. 

Likewise, in Ohio, incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, has been holding off a well-funded Republican challenger, State Treasurer Josh Mandel. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Brown leads Mandel by 9 points—meaning that Romney would need to win over at least one in 10 Brown voters to win the Buckeye State’s 18 electoral votes if the election were held today. Even with super PACs supplying 52 percent of ad spending in the state this cycle, convincing supporters of the proudly liberal Brown to vote Romney/Ryan is a trick. 

Virginia offers what has been considered the most competitive Senate race in the country, pitting two former governors—Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen—against one another. For months this race had been deadlocked at about 45–45, in a war of attrition. The week after Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comments, the deadlock broke, with Kaine and Obama both gaining a brief 8-point bounce. In the wake of President Obama’s lousy first debate performance, presidential polls have tightened considerably and the Senate race will no doubt tighten up as well. But the most recent NBC/WSJ poll showed Kaine up by 5 points—and if that margin holds, it gives President Obama a cushion in Old Dominion. 

Governors races can have down-ticket coattails as well. New Hampshire has long been viewed as winnable by Team Romney. The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts has a lakefront family home in the Live Free or Die State, and he easily won the Republican primary there. But state Republicans nominated a social conservative activist named Ovid LaMontagne—who’d previously lost a gubernatorial race to Jean Shaheen by 17 points and also lost a 2010 primary to the current senator, Kelly Ayotte—to succeed the popular four-term centrist Democrat Gov. Jim Lynch. In a state with a strong libertarian tradition, LaMontagne supports a constitutional ban on abortion and has promised to roll back the marriage-equality law upheld by bipartisan margins this year. His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Maggie Hassan, is leading LaMontagne by 2 points in both a WMUR and NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. 

Independent Nation

Centrists Embrace Obama

Centrists have drifted left this year, while independents have moved slightly rightward, reports John Avlon.

Mitt Romney’s debate debut of his new, centrist political persona may be no deeper than an Etch-a-Sketch drawing, but it might prove effective. After all, elections in America are won by the candidate who connects best with centrists and independents, the quintessential swing voters.

Obama 2012

President Barack Obama greets supporters after delivering remarks at a campaign event at Kent State University, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012 in Kent, Ohio. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo)

But in an important and little-noticed new trend, centrists and independents this year have changed from nearly identical to become two very different groups.

For months, the once and apparently future Massachusetts Moderate has been getting crushed by President Obama among self-identified centrist voters—trailing by about 20 points, 36 percent to 58 percent, according to the mid-September Pew Survey and and 39 percent to 57 percent according to a late September poll by ABC News and The Washington Post. 

But self-identified independent voters—who now make up 40 percent of the electorate—have been evenly divided or edging toward Romney. So the mid-September Pew Survey showed independent voters breaking 44 percent to 42 percent for Obama, while the late-September ABC-Washington Post poll shows 49 percent to 45 percent for Romney. And all that was before the Denver debate. 

In the past, independent and centrist voters have been broadly aligned (think of the two most successful independent politicos in office, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Senator Joe Lieberman, as well as Senate candidate Angus King in Maine).  Overall, independents are closer to Republicans on economic issues, closer to Democrats on social issues and they are the least religious voter cohort overall.  Not incidentally, registered independents now outnumber Democrats and Republicans in five states up the northeastern seaboard, thanks in large part to the rightward drift of the national GOP over the past decade.

But now, due to the rise of the Tea Party, an increase in the number of independent conservatives have moved that cohort slightly to the right, even as centrist voters are leaning Democratic in reaction to the rightward march of Republicans in Congress.  Those underlying dynamics driving swing voters in the 2012 election helps to understand why the last debate could have an outsized impact on polls, at least over the next week. 

“Independents are right-leaning voters who were angry at Republicans and Bush in the past.  They will punish Republicans if they are too extreme,” says former Clinton pollster and Daily Beast contributor Doug Schoen.  “And a lot of moderates are Democrats who wouldn’t go as far left as Obama. But until Tuesday’s debate, they saw Romney as a right-wing extremist.” 

Money Talks

Rove Bankrolls Romney

Big surprise: Right-wing super PACs overwhelm liberal groups, according to new data released today. And that means Romney can hold on to his cash and spend big in the final weeks. John Avlon reports.

Brand new data on super-PAC spending is out courtesy of the Wesleyan Media Project, and conservative groups are still considerably outspending liberal organizations, despite an overall ad-buy advantage from the Obama campaign over the Romney campaign as the Tsunami of Sleaze rolls through our airwaves on to Election Day 2012.

TV ads by nondisclosing dark-money 501(c)(4)s are keeping up with super-PAC spending in these final weeks, with the combined totals almost matching Team Mitt’s overall ad spending.

And in several key swing-state Senate races, independent groups account for more than 50 percent of all the advertising money spent. 

For example, in September the Karl Rove–backed super PAC American Crossroads and its 501(c)(4) arm Crossroads GPS spent almost $15 million in ads, compared with $19 million spent by the Romney campaign and dwarfing the $2 million spent by the Romney-affiliated super PAC Restore Our Future, which had previously raised more money than any other group this cycle. 

Interestingly, Restore Our Future went from Aug. 23 to Sept. 21 without spending any money on ads, according to OpenSecrets.org. It could be argued that Karl Rove and his Crossroads Empire are basically propping up the Romney campaign at this point, where onetime Crossroads cofounder Ed Gillespie is a senior adviser. 

“August was the first month in which liberal super PACs outraised conservative super PACs,” said Robert Maguire from the Center for Responsive Politics. “Coincidentally, August also saw the beginning of a nearly monthlong dry spell in ad buys on the part of Restore Our Future. Whether the two are related, no one will know until mid-October, when September's donor totals are filed with the FEC.”

Karl Rover

Rove talks on the floor of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. (Glen Stubbe, Minneapolis Star Tribune / MCT / Landov)

In the general-election season overall, Crossroads GPS has outspent American Crossroads in ads by a more than 2–1 margin, $41.4 million to $17.8 million. Since GPS is nominally the “social purpose” and nonprofit arm of Rove’s empire, it doesn’t have to reveal its donors—meaning we won’t ever know who gave the $41.4 million to produce and air those dark-money ads.

Campaign Home Stretch

The Real October Surprises

The right has trotted out a ‘race’ video as a surprise tool against Obama this month, but the president has enough real-time issues that could unexpectedly damage him—from Iran to the Benghazi attack aftermath, to new unemployment figures.

October Surprise. It’s defined by Safire’s Political Dictionary as a “last minute disruption before a November election; unexpected political stunt or revelation that could affect an election’s outcome.” 

America was treated to a lame attempt to manufacture just such a stunt last night with the live re-release on Hannity of a speech the president gave in 2007, promoted all day with banners at the Drudge Report and housed on the Daily Caller website.

The speech—originally broadcast on Fox on June 5, 2007—caused a minor stir at the time, commemorated in this column by Roland Martin, but it had largely been forgotten in the wake of two presidential campaigns and almost four years of actions in the White House.

Let’s be honest: It is a naked attempt to reinsert race into the election, trying to stoke the fires too many folks on the far right have been fanning since Obama first ran for president—arguing that he is not a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln” (in the immortal words of Fred Davis’s emotionally aligned super-PAC pitch to Joe Ricketts) but a Black Panther radical in disguise who secretly hates white people and America (which is why he’s always apologizing for it). The alternative is to “let America be America again”—by any means necessary.   

In the prepartisan media days, there were two traditional ways of conjuring up an October surprise. 

Campaigns certainly did their bit of dirty tricks, ranging from Nixon supporter Anna Chennault’s 1968 outreach to the North Vietnamese to convince them to back away from peace talks, to the Gore campaign’s preelection weekend leak that George W. Bush had an undisclosed DUI from back in his drinking days.  

External events provide the other known unknown—the kind of a foreign or domestic disaster that suddenly refocuses the mind and reframes the debate.  

That is the subject of this column. Because while attempts to one-up Mother Jones’s damaging “47 percent” video are preoccupying the right, there are plenty of real-world October surprises potentially looming with a look at the news. Here are five. 

FTW

Obama Nails It

The president’s recent speeches have not always lived up to his reputation for dazzling oratory. But his U.N. address exceeded expectations. John Avlon on why this was one of his best.

President Obama can be, if anything, overrated as an orator. Some of his heavily hyped speeches—such as his Charlotte convention address—fall flat or fall short.

That was not the case with his U.N. address Tuesday.

Certainly, the stakes were high—two weeks after the murder of the first American ambassador since 1979, his killers still at large, and the hope of the Arab Spring given to shadows and fog.

Against this backdrop, while world leaders met yesterday at the General Assembly, the president seemed in campaign mode—making time for the ladies of The View but not for Prime Minister Netanyahu or Egypt’s newly elected leader Mohammad Morsi. Moreover, his administration’s statements in the wake of ambassador Chris Stevens’s death have been confused and at times contradictory.

President Obama speaks at the U.N.

But President Obama’s fourth speech to the United Nation’s General Assembly rose to the occasion and to the heights to which he is capable. It was a vision and values speech grounded in the tumultuous facts on the world stage today, using the legacy of the slain Stevens as a narrative frame for the American spirit and the spirit of freedom that extends beyond borders.

Today we must reaffirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our united nations.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations on Sept. 25, 2012, in New York. (Brendan Smialowski, AFP / Getty Images)

Party Animals

Political Independents: The Future of Politics?

They've been both relentlessly courted and politically sidelines for years. But two new books show how voters who reject both Democrats and Republicans can become a force. By John Avlon

In the final stretch of this play-to-the-base presidential election, it is strange to say that the 40 percent of Americans who identify as independent are currently close to an afterthought. With so few undecided voters left, even most independents have chosen sides by now.

Independent Voters

RCWW, Inc-Corbis

But some day this election is going to end, and if the next president and the next Congress hope to break through the hyperpartisan stalemate, they are going to have to find ways to appeal to the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American electorate.

Two timely new books—Mickey Edwards's The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans and Jacqueline Salit’s Independents Rising offer valuable insights into the impulses that have inspired a record number of Americans to reject the two parties and demand something different.

The two authors come to some of the same conclusions from very different perspectives. Edwards is a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, a member of party leadership during the Reagan era and now a vice president of the Aspen Institute. Salit is a New York City–based campaign strategist, third-party founder, and political activist who was raised part of the professional left and now runs IndependentVoting.org. Their two books reflect their very different personal experiences in politics, but they identify some of the same problems and solutions.

Edwards’s book takes a decidedly more national perspective, reflecting his congressional career and understanding of the way Washington really works. It makes his prescriptions particularly powerful because they are practicable, if not a little ambitious.

The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans is an urgent and engaging look at how American politics have become the founding fathers’ worst nightmare. Not content to simply criticize, Edwards also proposes solutions to the hyperpartisanship currently corroding civil discourse and resulting in the paralysis of Congress, a serious threat to the American experiment in self-governance.

Balancing stories from different eras in American politics with his own experience as a member of Congress, Edwards makes a compelling case that the current congressional division and dysfunction is the result of an incentive structure run amok. Procedural rules and election laws have been rigged to reward hyperpartisanship, thereby trapping otherwise well-intentioned people in a system that rewards intransigence, treating members of the other party as the enemy.

First Amendment

Hate Rides the Subway

Fear merchants like Pamela Geller are exploiting the First Amendment with hateful public messages. If they’re trying to save ‘civilized man,’ why must they promote such incivility?

This Monday, 10 subway stations throughout New York City will be adorned with this welcoming message: “In any war between civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” It is paid for by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the funding vehicle for anti-Islamist activist Pamela Geller.

Subway Ads-Jihad

In this Sept. 11, 2012 photo, anti-Islamic blogger Pamela Geller, speaks at a conference she organized entitled; “Stop Islamization of America,” in New York. (David Karp / AP Photo )

The ads have been posted at the order of a judge after one year of legal wrangling with the MTA. U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Englemayer concluded that when “as a reasonable person would, the AFDI ad plainly depicts Muslims… as savages.”

But of course, our civilization has freedom of speech, even for conspiracy entrepreneurs and fear merchants like Geller and her lawyer, David Yerushalmi, who make their living trying to freak people out about the nonexistent rise of Sharia law in places like Oklahoma.

By way of background, Geller positioned herself front and center at the now slightly surreal Ground Zero mosque protests in the summer of 2010. Some of her fellow travelers in the anti-Islamist beat were wrapped up in the “film” that was used to spur attacks on our embassies in the Middle East, more or less exactly as intended. Extremes feed off each other.

To get an objective sense of just how far out Pamela Geller is, take a look at the daily teeth-gnashing on her website Atlas Shrugs or just listen to her interview with Erin Burnett on CNN’s OutFront Thursday night, where Geller dismissed the Anti-Defamation League by saying that no one who loves Israel “takes them seriously.”

For their part, the ADL describes Geller’s group as “an anti-Muslim activist group, and you don’t have to be anti-Muslim to be pro-Israel.” This has the added advantage of being true.

Unpopular

Mitt's Likability Problem

No other presidential candidate has racked up unfavorable ratings this high during a campaign, according to a Pew Survey. Why is Romney so disliked? It’s not personal, it’s business.

Less than 50 days from the election, it’s still Mitt Romney’s biggest mystery. 

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney during a campaign event on January 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

He is an exemplary husband and father—the kind of man you would want as a member of your church or would trust to run your business.   

So why do so many people find it hard to warm up to Willard?

His “47 percent” comment resonated because it reinforced the negative narrative about Mitt as an out-of-touch member of the superrich with little feeling for policy, politics or people—a million miles away from W’s “compassionate conservative” mantra. He comes across as an awkward mix of Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, without any of the redeeming qualities. And it’s arguable which is worse—whether Romney essentially believes what he said at the $50,000-a-plate fundraiser, or was simply pandering to the well-heeled audience.   

At least three Republican Senate nominees—Scott Brown, Linda McMahon, and Dean Heller—quickly distanced themselves from his comments, followed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich and condemnations from a half-dozen high-profile conservative columnists, including Bill Kristol and Peggy Noonan. According to a new Pew Survey, no other presidential candidate’s unfavorable ratings have been as high at this point in a campaign.

Newsbeast discusses Romney's latest blunders.

His problems are compounded by an open secret in Republican politics—no one who has ever run against Mitt Romney walks away liking the guy. 

HIGH CONTRAST

A Tale of Two Conventions

The Obama iconography stood out because it is almost impossible to imagine Mitt Romney inspiring that kind of grassroots passion, writes John Avlon.

The two-week convention caravan is now at rest, and Tampa and Charlotte are in the rear-view mirror. So how did the two conventions compare, seen up close and side by side? Well, sometimes stereotypes ring true: Republicans fall in line, while Democrats fall in love.

Obama Iconography And A Tale of Two Conventions

Conservatives are primarily united by the prospect of unseating President Obama, while at least among liberal conventioneers the love affair with him still seems to be going strong.

On the airwaves, this is a definitively post–Hope and Change election, with both campaigns trying to motivate their base by any means necessary to vote against the other guy. Positive pitches or policy plans have been basically MIA on television, where most Americans are viewing the campaign.

The nomination of Paul Ryan has invigorated Mitt Romney’s appeal among the base and strengthened his campaign’s policy credentials, for better or worse. The carefully selected center-right convention speakers—otherwise known as the 2016 bench—criticized President Obama with a studious sadness, a script aimed at giving disaffected centrist voters permission to give their team a chance.

But there are limits to the appeal of an essentially negative agenda—kicking the other guy out rather than rallying around the prospect of President Mitt Romney. As the anemic one-point bump out of Tampa shows that enthusiasm hasn’t yet spread to swing voters.

The contrast in Charlotte, N.C., was clear: convention-going Democrats are motivated to vote for their candidate rather than just against the other guy.

Covering this election, the optimism of the Obama 2008 campaign is hard to conjure up. If, as Mario Cuomo said, “you campaign in poetry but govern in prose,” the prose offered by the Obama administration has been uninspiring—especially against the backdrop of a still-sluggish economy. President Obama’s sober-rather-than-soaring nomination speech essentially conceded that fact.

The Question

Better Off Than When, Exactly?

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” 

Martin O'Malley

Patrick Semansky / AP Photo

This is literally the most anticipatable question for a presidential re-election—and the fact that Governor Martin O’Malley got caught flat-footed on it is a cause for head-scratching, if not concern, given his otherwise stalwart performance as a Obama surrogate.  

If there is cause for the stumble it is because the unemployment rate remains higher than when Barack Obama took office. Add to that fact so many underwater homes and under-employed workers and it seems callous to crow about improvements.  And “It could have been worse” is a definitively uninspiring re-election slogan. 

The right answer to the question is this: "Americans are better off than they were three-and-a-half years ago."

Obama took the oath of office in the midst of an economic freefall, during which our country was losing 750,000 jobs a month. The fiscal crisis began, of course, in September 2008. And the freefall was still accelerating four months later. Unemployment jumped to 8.3% in February of 2009 and 8.7% in March – heading toward 10% in October of 2009.  The stock market hit its low on Day 50 of the Obama administration – and has more than doubled from that low water mark since. That’s a 100% improvement under this supposedly socialist, anti-business president. (The fact that Main Street and Wall Street’s fortunes seem increasingly de-linked is a larger problem for another column).  

The Obama administration stopped the economic freefall and reversed the momentum from job losses toward job creation, however slow. Compared to the economic courses taken by other European nations, the stimulus seems smarter in the short run than austerity.  We are going to need to get our deficit and debt under control—and President Obama has failed to lead on this issue to date (maybe that should be a cornerstone goal of a second term)—but investment toward economic growth should come first.   

Bottom line: We are better off than we were once the Obama administration began to act in office. That’s not partisan spin, that’s objective fact.  

Republican Convention

Mitt’s Missing Character Narrative

In his nomination speech Thursday the GOP nominee needs to cite core facts of his life that helped shape his character, and offer signs of struggle and success Americans can be inspired by, whether it is his Mormon faith or time as a missionary in France.

Mitt Romney’s nomination speech is receiving final edits as you read this—examined to make sure every essential theme is included, every phrase shined and sharpened.

Romney 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally on Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012 in Powell, Ohio. (Evan Vucci / AP Photo)

But Romney has an additional burden in this nomination address—he needs to fill in the missing character narrative at the core of his campaign.

JFK had the searing experience of PT 109. John McCain survived years in a Vietnamese P.O.W. camp. Bill Clinton stood up to an abusive stepfather. George W. Bush overcame the temptations of drink and found a fortifying faith.

We expect our presidential candidates to come with a character narrative, however big or small, a hero’s journey of suffering and redemption that informs their judgment, arming them with empathy and wisdom once they reach the Oval Office.

Mitt Romney’s blessing is his curse in this regard. He has lived a life of privilege and discipline animated by ambition. He was the son of a CEO and governor. He famously protested in favor of the Vietnam War but never served. He got a JD/MBA from Harvard and soon found extraordinary success in private equity, which would snowball into a quarter-billion dollar fortune, made meaningful by a lifelong love and five healthy children.

He has lived a life of great success but little suffering, at least on the surface. He has been tested, but in the boardroom rather than the battlefield.

This missing character narrative compounds his core problem of relate-ability. After five years of running for president, Mitt Romney has not put forward a character narrative at the core of his campaign biography.

2016 Preview?

Ryan Takes the Stage

There’s been a lot of GOP spin about how this convention is Mitt Romney’s chance to “introduce himself to the American people.” This is ridiculous: the man’s been running for president for five years. If polls show he has a likability deficiency at this point, it’s his fault, not the public’s lack of attention.

 Romney 2012

Republican vice-presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), center, works on the speech he will deliver at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 28, 2012, with senior adviser Dan Senor, left, and senior aid Conor Sweeney. (Mary Altaffer / AP Photo)

But for one person at the convention podium, this is a real opportunity to introduce himself to the American people—and that, of course, is the VP nominee Paul Ryan.

Beloved by conservatives, Ryan has invigorated the Romney campaign. As in 2008, the Republican running mate may again be more popular than the nominee among the party faithful. This time, though, it’s for reasons of substance as well as style. Ryan is the anti-Palin: a policy wonk rewarded for his political courage in putting an actual budget behind conservative rhetoric about reforming government. It is the first time a presidential candidate has essentially outsourced policy to his vice presidential pick.

But if Ryan is a rock star among wonky Republicans, he is still a House member, unknown to the nation at large. Tonight’s speech is the equivalent of his major-label debut after a series of critically acclaimed independent albums.

He is the first sitting congressman to be tapped as a vice-presidential nominee since Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, and the youngest nominee since Dan Quayle in 1988. He has never run for office outside his Wisconsin congressional district. Now he is running nationwide—but what resonates in the ideological echo chamber often does not translate to a broader audience.

That’s why his primetime talk tonight is arguably the highest-stake speech of the convention. Romney is building on an established foundation while Ryan is essentially crafting his profile in public with his speech tonight.

Sarah Palin’s convention speech was an instant classic, written by former Bush speechwriter Matt Scully. It established her, like her or not, as a scrappy political talent. Scully has also been working with Team Romney on the key speeches of this convention. Unlike Palin, Paul Ryan comes with a firm personal and political philosophy, and he is already an expert at articulating it. When it comes to conservative communicators, the key is to talk about economics in a way that resonates with people at home about their own lives—to talk about the dangers of deficit and debt in terms of personal values. And Ryan can do it.

About the Author

Author headshot

John Avlon

John Avlon is senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and the host of Beast TV. He is a CNN contributor and winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ award for best online column in 2012.

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The Nevada rancher’s escalating standoff with the feds raises a worrisome question: Can Americans’ relationship with their government—and each other—be saved?

Complex History

Can HRC Count on Women This Time?

Do Something

Millennials and the American City

Fool Me Once…

The Fringe Faith Duping The GOP

Legal Authority

Go It Alone, Obama, for Democracy