Mitt Romney had hoped that he could win the presidency by running as a turnaround artist who revived struggling businesses, cleaned up the corruption-addled 2002 winter Olympics and restored fiscal sanity to the state of Massachusetts. But frankly, there are only six weeks left until Election Day. Despite his statements to the contrary, Romney's presidential campaign needs a reorientation, if not a comprehensive turnaround.
We do not mean to exaggerate because this race is far from over. President Obama remains vulnerable, due to his poor job performance and the stubbornly weak economy. The most recent polls suggest that his post-Democratic convention bounce has nearly evaporated. Romney, who has saved his resources up to this point and allowed Obama to outspend him in many key states, will also enjoy a substantial cash advantage in the final weeks of the campaign.
That said, most polls still show Romney trailing Obama, both nationally and in key swing states he probably must win -- especially Ohio, Florida and Virginia. Perhaps most troubling for the Republican nominee, although Obama's lead has fluctuated over time, Romney hasn't led Obama in the national Real Clear Politics average since Oct. 2011, and even then it was by an insignificant margin. The problem, in a nutshell, is that Romney has been able to corral the anti-Obama vote, but he hasn't provided swing voters enough of a positive reason to vote for him. In the absence of detailed policies to push, his campaign has given more power to the media to put the focus on trivial issues and overhype real or imagined "gaffes."
With today's polarized electorate, the U.S. is unlikely to witness a landslide victory such as Ronald Reagan's in 1984 or Lyndon Johnson's in 1964. Even John McCain won 46 percent of the vote in 2008, and John Kerry got 48 percent in 2004. The Kerry example might be particularly telling, given that Kerry was trying to unseat George W. Bush, a vulnerable incumbent, but failed to articulate a positive case for why he would be better. In a September 2004 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 41 percent of Kerry supporters said their support was about backing him rather than merely opposing Bush. In the same poll taken earlier this month, just 45 percent of Romney supporters said their support was about Romney, compared to 50 percent who said it was more about opposing Obama.
These numbers are the natural consequence of a risk averse strategy by a challenger who seems afraid to spell out and defend detailed policy proposals. To be sure, such details would open him up to attack. But it seemed at first that Romney's choice of Republican policy guru Paul Ryan to be his running mate meant Romney was ready to go bold. Instead, Ryan has been forced to restrain himself to assimilate into the ticket, while Romney has continued with his cautious strategy. Only about 200 words in Romney's roughly 4,000-word acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention focused on his economic proposals -- supposedly the primary rationale for his candidacy.
If Romney continues on the current course, he will be unlikely to break through 50 percent threshold, overtake Obama in key swing states and capture the presidency. But if he explains his policies in more detail in his upcoming stump speeches, ads and debates -- and if he unleashes Ryan so that he can work from his strengths -- Romney still has a chance of winning. And more importantly, he'll also be in stronger position to enact those policies if he is elected, because Americans will be ready for them.