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The 2012 playbooks for Obama and Romney

By Elvin Lim

The General Election campaign appears to be in full swing now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. But this is really only true on the Republican side. Team Obama is obviously holding back.

President Barack Obama addresses Indiana residents during a town halll style meeting. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

It would appear that the opening statement of the Obama campaign has been made. They are emphasizing the “Buffett Rule” (increased taxes for millionaires) and trying to draw what pollsters call “sharp contrasts” with the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. They are highlighting the fact that Romney is not releasing the full record of his tax returns.

This is not the best strategy for an incumbent candidate, which is why it is important to know that this is just the opening volley. If history is any guide, the Obama campaign won’t be releasing its secret weapon just yet.

Historically, all re-election campaigns are referenda on the incumbent’s first term. For challengers like Mitt Romney, the strategy has almost always been to take on the president for his failure to run the country and in this year’s case, the economy. That is to say, challengers usually address issues, not personality. Since the president has the aura of the office behind him, challengers are better off confronting sitting presidents on the issues.

Knowing this, the Obama campaign appears to be walking into terrain more advantageous to Romney the campaign. But they know better even as they are now taking on the issues. The thing about drawing sharp contrasts is that whoever is doing it is by definition carving out his piece of the electoral pie and simultaneously helping to define his opponent’s electoral pie. By harping on the Buffett Rule — even if a supermajority of Americans support it — Obama appears to be reinforcing the preconceived notions of Republicans that he is just a crazy tax-and-spend liberal. Or maybe Team Obama is just holding back.

The reason why the Republican Party took so long to grudgingly settle on Romney isn’t just because he is a moderate. He’s just not very likeable, which is exactly what a majority of Americans — by a 2 to 1 ratio — think of Obama. Clearly this is Team Obama’s secret weapon: the candidate. Mitt Romney is to the Republicans who John Kerry was to the Democrats in 2004.

Perhaps even more than the economy, contrasting personalities are the underlying tectonic shift of Election 2012. The economic situation — barring surprises in Europe — isn’t going to be particularly rosy, but it doesn’t look like it would be dismal either. In the context of a slow but steady recovery, independent voters in swing states may not be easily persuaded to switch course because transitions mean uncertainty and voters, like businesses, don’t like uncertainty.

So why isn’t the Obama campaigning highlighting their candidate’s likability now? Because doing so invariably involves a negative campaign against Romney, akin to a TV ad with a John Kerry flip-flopping with the wind. And research shows that the best negative campaigns are those done by surrogates (such as SuperPACS) so that the offending campaign catches no flak.

So watch for it. There are going to be a ton of really innovative, even humorous (and those are the best) ads painting Romney as an awkward, company destroying, out-of-touch one-percenter. Maybe this is why Republican elites are correctly vetting the veepstakes already. Romney is in grave need of his Sarah Palin if his personality stays buttoned up in his tailored suits.

The issues will not save Romney in 2012. A personality might.

Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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