by Matt Spence
The calendar has turned to October. Suddenly, those who haven't cared much or paid much attention to the Romney-Obama food fight of the past four or so months are tuning in. Almost 70 million Americans watched the first Presidential debate on Wednesday - twice the number that watched Obama's acceptance speech at the DNC and triple the number that watched Romney's at the RNC. Ben has done a great job on this site of covering what people saw, from his perspective. From the other end of the ideological perspective it is hard to know what people saw. I think it was largely two things, 1) a guy willing to take the fight to POTUS and his "media lapdogs" (aka everybody's slightly senile grandpa, Jim Lehrer) and, 2) a guy who took a bunch of positions he took before he took the opposite ones and then back to the original ones and then the other... Oh, nevermind. Forget his positions, they saw a guy who stood shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful person in the free world and did not look out of place. What does he stand for? Who cares? He isn't the other guy.
So where does that leave us for the sprint to the finish? As always, it leaves us with alternate universes created by the Echo Chamber that Ben and I write about so often. Fox News sees a resurgent candidate who should have been winning all along merging with a boiling undercurrent of discontent that will lead to a GOP victory in November. MSNBC sees a President who was distracted, disinterested and dour - a man who must be tired from carrying the hope of a people on his back while fighting the intransigence of those dastardly 1% social darwinists. They see a man who must win and should win.
Ugh. As I have previously written, the strict confines of the American two-party system - and the talking heads on both sides that prop it up - has led many an American to say "A plague on both your houses!" How else can you explain pathetic voter turnout and widespread ignorance. But hey, if people don't have a basic understanding of the reality of a situation, guess what can thrive? Conspiracy theories! I love conspiracy theories because they are just so ridiculous, so far-fetched that they amuse me. And what do we have at the beginning of October? Dueling conspiracy theories!
Ben gave a good account of one that is common on the left right now: that it is in the media's best interest to write the "Romney's on the comeback trail" narrative, and so media ignores "what's really happening" to falsely argue that the race is close. The reasoning behind that is actually sound, but I can't watch this Chris Matthews meltdown and believe that he is coherent or sober enough to be part of any such conspiracy. Clearly, he really and truly believes that Obama did poorly and that Romney ate his lunch. This is not acting, this is hysteria. (By the way, what happened to that guy? From being on Tip O'Neill's staff to writing a great companion book [Hardball] to the seminal work of his boss [All Politics is Local] to a tingling leg and hysterical sadness and distress? Quite the spiral down for him...) However, that does not take away from the main point. It behooves the media to have a close election that people are engaged in and following all the way to the end. Are they, as a group, trying to make that happen? I'm not so sure. I don't see media execs sitting in expensive offices saying to their editors, reporters and anchors, "you must only choose to report the evidence that makes this race appear close when we, in fact, know it is not." I just don't see it.
Meanwhile, conspiracies abound today on the right as well. The new jobless numbers for September came out - not great, but a key threshold was broken, and with it goes one of Romney's standard attack lines against the POTUS. Unemployment has fallen below 8%. Romney's line about "(fill in the blank) consecutive months with unemployment above 8%" no longer works. Today, national unemployment stands at 7.8%, exactly the same number as when Obama took office in January of 2009. Does the Right Wing crowd believe in the veracity of this number? Not for a second. In fact, their attack on it is two-fold.
First, the conspiracy - the Bureau of Labor Statistics must have cooked the number for the President - It doesn't match with other economic indicators - Obama needed it after a terrible debate - purely partisan political posturing from BLS - it is not a reliable number anyway(actually, that last part is true - it has a +/- of 100,000 and is routinely revised between 20-50% within a few months) etc. Basically, the right believes Obama is manipulating the structures of government reporting to benefit his reelection. If he was, wouldn't he do a better job than this? Wouldn't he have done it sooner?
The second line of attack is much more wonky and difficult to turn into a stump speech line of attack. And it is closer to being true. This line of attack says that the drop is a result of increased part-time employment (true) and people who have stopped looking for work (also true) and that it falls below the number of jobs that need to be created in order to sustain the economy (a little more fungible of an argument). Finally, the line of attack ends with "well, it still isn't good news, or good enough."
Famous CEO Jack Welch is pitching this theory. Unhinged conspiracy theorist, tin-foil hat on a high top fade GOP Congressman Allen West, of course, is right there with him.
But to the voter who has just begun to pay attention, this is all just noise. The real question being laid before us, as Ben has tried to remind us all, is this: which candidate will be better for our nation over the next four years? Though not many, there are some out there still grappling with this question. As I have tried to write about in the past, millenials are probably the bulk of this group. This article I wish I had written does a great job of breaking down why.
If I were on Team Obama, I would be spending the bulk of my efforts going after millenials. 24% of the electorate, 80% of the margin of victory in 2008. What happens in November if they just don't show up?
If I am part of Team Romney, they would be my target audience as well. Use VP90X and the 5 Romney boys. Make more commercials with millenials tearing down Faded Obama Posters (R). Relentlessly target that highly un- and underemployed, debt-laden group and keep hammering.
I am not so sure that millenials are as locked in as the rest of the electorate. They should be in the POTUS wheelhouse, but it is hard to vote for status quo when your student loan is a huge chunk of an income that is much less than you were expecting. 1 in 5 American households has student loan debt. Young adult unemployment is 50-75% above the national average. This is the President's soft underbelly. The question is whether or not Romney can capitalize on it.
Both mainstream media and social media were abuzz on Wednesday and Thursday with talk of Romney's debate victory and the resurgence that surely must follow. Fact-checking hasn't really closed the gap in the 36 hours since. The ace in the hole for Obama is that social media is a space he dominates, and a space that millenials occupy. Will that be enough to tighten up his hold on that crucial demographic?
As the CNN article covered, Wednesday's debate largely ignored or peripherally/incompletely addressed topics near and dear to the hearts of millenials. I think they are still up for grabs, and should have a big fat target on them within each campaign apparatus. Who do you think will hit this target in the next 30 days, and how? Can the next three debates clarify it for us? What about the debate most likely to offer intelligent arguments and verifiable facts?
Whether from a sustained, media-driven conspiracy or not, the race has undoubtedly tightened in perception over the past few days. In reality, it has always been and will continue to be a fairly close contest. If Romney can sustain his momentum in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, election night could be a late one. We've already had our first October "game-changer". Are there more to come?