With the start of the primary season now just weeks away, the heated Republican race is monopolizing election news. In an endless string of debates, stump speeches and interviews this year, each GOP contender has jumped to explain why his or her vision for the country is best. And as the economy continues to be stuck in the doldrums, the candidates have made their cases for how President Obama's leadership has failed.
For instance, in an open letter to Obama this week, timed with the president's Fort Bragg trip welcoming troops home from Iraq, Mitt Romney wrote, "Mr. President, you came into office facing an economic crisis. It was not your doing. But after three years, it is plain that your policies have made things worse, not better … It is a disgrace that those who are now returning from Iraq join other Iraq veterans suffering from unemployment above 11 percent. In the face of such economic hardship, fine words welcoming veterans home are insufficient."
Although Obama's national approval rating improved a bit after hitting an all-time low in the fall, his marks on the economy remain at a record low. By some accounts, his re-election chances are doomed. This week the Obama campaign, however, explained a decidedly sunny outlook on the state of the race.
An Erratic Republican Field
At the top of the campaign's list of reasons they're feeling OK about things is the field of Republican challengers. "The Republican Party has kind of split in two," said Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod in a reporter's briefing, describing two separate factions: populist, Tea Party-driven social conservatives and center-right corporate Republicans. "But all the energy is on the Tea Party folks."
Romney, whom Axelrod places in the more traditional wing of the GOP, has tried to gain admission to the other side by reversing many of his previous positions — now supporting a repeal of Roe v. Wade, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and a plan to send 11 million undocumented immigrants back to their birth countries. Yet for his efforts, Romney continues to stall at around a quarter or less of the vote in national primary polling.
Newt Gingrich, the party's current front-runner, has gained favor as a bold reformer with his plan to cut more taxes for the wealthiest Americans and even a proposal to put poor children to work as school janitors. But the Obama camp says these ideas would be harmful in a general election.
"I don't think that the Republican caucuses reflect mainstream views," Axelrod said of the further-right positions that GOP hopefuls are claiming this primary season. "The longer this race goes, the more you're going to see these Republican candidates mortgage their general-election campaign to try and win the nomination." In the meantime, he said, the long, protracted race to out-"right" one another is only helping the president.
A Grassroots Ground Game
The Obama campaign hasn't been laying back in the cut, though, counting on the Republican field to implode. They've spent the year building a 50-state, on-the-ground operation. "We have more offices in Iowa than any of the Republican candidates who are running for nomination," Broderick Johnson, campaign senior adviser, told The Root. "Some might say, 'Why bother in certain states?' Well, we don't take that approach at all. We're bothering in every state."
However, the painstakingly tracked campaign — to date they say they've logged more than a million one-on-one conversations with voters, 90,000 planning meetings and 1 million donations (with nearly half coming from new donors) — hasn't necessarily led to an edge in swing states. According to a new USA Today-Gallup poll of 12 swing states that are considered key to winning next year, 61 percent of Republicans are enthusiastic about voting for president, compared with just 47 percent of Democrats.
Those numbers don't faze members of the Obama campaign, who say they remain encouraged by their organizing efforts. "Pennsylvania is a great example," said campaign manager Jim Messina. "I just don't see very many swing states where you have a million-person registration advantage, and in Pennsylvania [Democrats] do." Furthermore, recent battles in Wisconsin and Ohio over Republican-led efforts to roll back collective bargaining and other union rights have strengthened the might of the Obama campaign's teams in those states.
"This is a big contrast with the other side, where they've decided not to do the kind of grassroots organizing that we're doing," said Messina, pointing out that the Republican candidates have relied more on the media and debates. "This is going to be an advantage for us when we have to turn folks out."
Support From Core Voter Groups
A critical component of the campaign's ground game, in addition to going for independent voters, has been shoring up the Democratic base. This fall they launched Operation Vote, a program to aggressively recruit groups that supported Obama in 2008, such as African Americans, Latinos, young people, women and the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
"There are 8 million young Americans from 18 to 21 who weren't old enough to vote last time," said Messina. "Their brothers and sisters started this whole thing, and they're going to finish it." And despite speculation that the voters who "started this whole thing" in 2008 are so disillusioned by unemployment and overall disappointment that they'll stay home in 2012, the campaign thinks otherwise.
"They're disappointed at the pace of progress, but they're also aware what some of the obstacles have been," said Axelrod. "The people who have been for us in the past are very open to us again. They are not flocking to the Republican Party now."
Johnson added that the campaign's deliberate focus on key constituency groups isn't a new strategy — after all, they had targeted outreach the last time. But what's different now is not having the backdrop of a crazed primary contest cutting into their time. "We have the time and resources to be even more detailed in this approach of engaging people early and keeping them engaged," he said.
A "We're All in This Together" Message
Still, one shift from 2008 is the campaign's message. It's tougher to pitch Obama as a community-organizing newcomer when he's been president of the United States for the past three years. The crux of Obama's message now can be found in the speech he gave in Kansas last week on the widening wealth gap's crippling impact on the economy, as well as the plight of the middle class and poor.
"We all agree that the economy is the issue in 2012, but [the Obama campaign looks] at it differently," said Axelrod. "We believe that the mission is not just to recover from the recession, but it's also to restore the economic security that Americans have lost over a long period of time, when wages have been flattened and the middle class has been hollowed out."
The president outlined in his Kansas speech that the key to doing that will be investing in education and innovation while having the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes. He cast the economic agenda of Republicans, meanwhile, as being centered on cutting taxes for the wealthy, with the expectation that it will trickle down — a time-tested theory that the president said doesn't work.
Although critics of the president's speech saw it as a divisive sign of class warfare, his re-election campaign is willing to bet that enough voters will see it differently. "It was a unifying theme … about the fact that we're greater together. We're a stronger country when success is broadly available to people who are willing to work for it," Axelrod said. "We offer a hopeful vision of the future, one that holds up the hope of a broad prosperity, and theirs does not."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.