Barack Obama should be in serious trouble. The latest US job creation figures, showing that the US economy created only 96,000 jobs in August, should be catastrophic for a President in election year who is repeatedly attacked for his economic record. Not a bit of it. Rather than contemplating his future charitable work or considering what he can do to help the 'Michelle 2016' campaign, he is looking more likely than at any point since the assassination of Osama bin Laden to win a second term in the White House. Why? The answer is simple: William Jefferson Clinton.
Clinton has changed the entire complexion of the race. Firstly, his endorsement of the Democratic argument that the fragile state of the US economy is the fault of George Bush’s economic policies lends that interpretation the validity that it lacks when put forward by Obama. The latest Gallup poll of American Economic Confidence shows an eight point rise since Clinton’s endorsement of Obama’s economic record despite the aforementioned bad news on job creation. Clinton is associated with the good times, and Americans trust his judgement on the economy. Since the financial crisis of 2008, Clinton has seen his approval rating rise from 50% to 69%, suggesting the nostalgia with which they associate his time in office, especially with its attendant prosperity.
Clinton is associated with the good times
Secondly, Clinton’s endorsement of Obama will play well with the voters Obama struggles with: the white working class, particularly in the South. Clinton remains personally popular in the South, and will be a particular asset in the crucial Southern battleground of Florida. Since Clinton endorsed Obama, the latter has seen his poll lead in the state jump from 0.6 points to 1.7 points. North Carolina might be a lost cause, but if Clinton can help swing Florida and if possible Virginia for Obama, he will have earned him a crucial 42 votes in the Electoral College.
Finally, Clinton’s endorsement of Obama has diminished the Presidential nature of the race. By intentionally recasting it as a battle between two economic philosophies, Clinton has shifted the emphasis to party rather than candidate. It is no longer Obama’s economic policy against Romney’s economic policy. It is Republican economic policy versus Democrat economic policy, a recasting which works massively in Obama’s favour. Clinton’s reminder that it was the Republicans who got them into this mess has obviously resonated with the electorate.
Who would want as President the man endorsed by the party of Clint Eastwood and the party of Herman Cain?
This reinterpretation of the race draws the focus away from Romney and Obama, the perceptions of whom have more similarities than is sometimes thought. Both are thought of in their own ways as distant and aloof, and both have struggled to connect with voters. The shift to a focus on party rather than individual has helped Obama while handicapping Romney. Clinton, a living embodiment of the easy Southern charm of the Democrats’ roots, reminded people that the party is not entirely populated by stuffy Northern elitists. The GOP convention has had the opposite, negative effect, reinforcing the impression of the Republicans as a party of cranks. Romney's personal popularity has risen in the aftermath of the GOP convention, but his share of the vote has dropped. Who would want as President the man endorsed by the party of Clint Eastwood and the party of Herman Cain? Voters partly judge Presidential candidates by association with their parties. Now that Clinton is on board, this is great for Obama. For Romney, it is profoundly worrying.
It could, of course, be the case that the Democratic surge only coincidentally coincides with Clinton's speech, and was not caused by it. However, there are many reasons to think this is not the case. Clinton's speech was the standout event of the DNC, and the most widely watched. By the somewhat unscientific method of counting youtube views, the impact of Clinton’s speech can be understood. The two highest Clinton videos have a combined total of 4,380,011 views, almost 2 million more than Obama’s total of 2,544,641. We can infer that more people have watched Clinton’s speech, and that are making decisions informed by it. Therefore, we can partly attribute Obama’s poll bounce to Clinton. A recent Pew Research Centre poll, which found that 29% of Americans who watched the convention thought that Clinton’s speech was the highlight, as opposed to 16% who thought the same about Obama’s speech, lends itself to the same impression.
If a Republican strategist can find a way to effectively attack Clinton, they deserve a safe Senate seat as a reward
So, how long-lasting will this bounce be? Critics could reasonably point to convention bounces which petered out quickly, but there are reasons to think that this will not happen. Compare the Clinton bounce to the Sarah Palin bounce four years ago. Palin’s brief popularity rested on her being a new and fresh face, with controversial but interesting ideas. However, the edifice crumbled under more media exposure, as her lack of knowledge on crucial issues was laid bare and her credibility was destroyed. This is not a risk with Clinton, whose appeal rests entirely on being a known quantity. If a Republican strategist can find a way to effectively attack him, they deserve a safe Senate seat as a reward. Clinton has not really presented any new ideas, so there is little danger of a bounce petering out as such ideas become stale. His importance to Obama derives more from his name and status than from his policy-making.
Much will rest on the extent to which Obama can wheel Clinton out in the swing states. If he can, and Clinton continues to support Obama’s economic record, this bounce could prove decisive. Romney does not have an equivalent trump card. Much as we would all love to see Clint Eastwood continue his role as Romney’s warm up man, the possibility is at best remote.
The bets aren’t off just yet. A Romney comeback from this position would not be anything like the most spectacular in a US Presidential Race. However, he is going to have to come up with some new, exciting solutions to the economic crisis and ways to connect with the electorate very quickly. Or find a way to reanimate Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan. It’s hard to know which is more unlikely.
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