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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Obama's and Romney's Strengths Going Into Debates

Available data show that Mitt Romney’s strengths -- from the perspective of the average American -- appear to be his economic experience and his ability to handle the economy, his ability to deal with the federal budget deficit, knowing and being able to help investors and business, his ability to benefit the interests of men, and his skepticism about the scope and power of the federal government.

Barack Obama’s strengths appear to be his compassion for underdogs and those who are socio-economically disadvantaged, his compassion for minorities, his ability to help middle-income Americans, his ability to benefit the interests of women, his approach to social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, a likable personality, his ability to understand the problems of average Americans, and foreign policy experience. (See here and here for relevant data.) 

Americans have told us this year that the economy and employment/jobs are the number-one issues on their minds. Below economic concerns, Americans’ list of most important problems facing the U.S. continues with dissatisfaction with government and the way it runs, and concerns over the federal deficit and healthcare.

Romney has a slight edge over Obama as being better able to handle the top problem facing the country -- the economy. Romney has an edge on the issue of the federal government, since he is a) not in government and can therefore criticize it from the outside and b) his expressed concern about the size and power of the federal government and his concern about the dependency of Americans on government fits with the majority of public opinion. Romney has a clear edge over Obama on being able to handle the deficit. Romney operates at a 6-percentage-point deficit on healthcare vis-a-vis Obama, but his opponent’s signature approach to healthcare, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, is controversial with the American public and is generally opposed by as many as favor it.

Obama’s campaign has to this point attempted to reposition Romney’s strength on business and the economy as a minus, emphasizing that his skills in this arena are targeted just for those in the upper strata.

Romney’s campaign has not been as focused in its efforts to delegitimize Obama’s strengths, which are more personality based and thus harder to challenge through speeches and paid advertising.

Obama’s most likely plan of attack in the debates will be to continue to emphasize his strengths and blunt those of Romney. In the debates, we would thus expect Obama to continue to emphasize his compassion and understanding of the issues and problems of the disadvantaged, those who are struggling, and those in the middle class, and to continue his efforts to attack Romney’s economic strengths by defining them as narrowly based on helping investors and the upper strata.

Romney will most likely emphasize how his existing strength and experience with business and the economy play to the benefit of all Americans, not just the upper class, and will continue to press home the advantages of his conviction that using the federal government to solve major social and economic problems has liabilities. And Romney will emphasize his perceived advantage on the deficit.
Gallup’s long-term study of data on individual effectiveness has led to the conviction that it is better to build off of one’s strengths than it is to spend most of one’s time focusing on remedying one’s weaknesses. Along these lines, it will be difficult for Romney to transform his image and become “likable” in the course of the debates. Similarly, it will be difficult for Romney to delegitimize Obama’s perceived compassion and likable personality. In theory, Romney could attempt to acknowledge Obama’s compassion for underdogs, while emphasizing that the manifestation of this compassion with a belief in the power of government to solve their plight is not a viable long-term solution. 

Obama would want to come out of the debates having reinforced what he has been doing, playing to his compassion and likability strengths, while continuing to delegitimize Romney’s strengths as an approach that would not fix the economy for everyone, but only for the already privileged. Plus Obama may attempt to build off of his existing strengths on social issues by emphasizing that Romney would be more extreme in his positions on those issues.

Romney would optimally come out of the debate having convinced more Americans of why his economic strengths would play to their benefit, along with some counter effort to delegitimize Obama’s strengths. Romney in particular could play off the general American antipathy toward the federal government.

Each candidate has strengths with certain demographic groups. Obama’s vote coalition is built first and foremost on nonwhites, adding to that voters who are not married, who are not religious, who are young, who have low incomes, and, to a degree, who are women. Obama also has vote strength among those with low levels of education and those with postgraduate degrees. Conversely, Romney’s appeal is to whites in general, but more specifically whites who are older or male, whites who have some college or college degrees but no postgraduate degrees, those in the upper-income ranges, those who are married, and those who are very religious.

In terms of voter segments, Obama’s most obvious target in the debate would be whites with some college or college degrees. Romney’s most obvious expansion out of his base would be into lower-educated whites, whites with postgraduate degrees, and perhaps with one segment of nonwhites where Obama’s advantage is slightly less overwhelming -- Hispanics.

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