Bob Wright correctly observes that we should soon be treated to a barrage of Romney Combeack stories chiefly because the press needs a new story to tell and this is one of the few even semi-plausible tales remaining. It may even be necessary to concoct a Romney comeback even without there being any actual evidence for a Mitt Recovery. (Conservative fans of Scoop will recognise this as the Wendell Jakes Gambit*).
Be that as it may, you need only read the most optimistic pieces of pro-Romney straw-clutching now appearing in newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic to appreciate how improbable Romney's resurrection is. I mean, can't they do better than this?
Take, for instance, Andrew Roberts' piece in the new edition of Standpoint. He begins:
Romney's first hope must be that people are simply lying to pollsters, and not wanting to seem racist by admitting that they are planning to vote against America's first black president.
This seems an unpromising beginning. Undaunted Roberts, who, if I recall, has the dubious distinction of being one of those chaps once asked to "advise" George W Bush, continues:
Romney's second cause for hope is that in Ohio, Florida and Virginia, Obama's job approval rating is hovering at or below 50 per cent, which is hardly healthy for a president seeking re-election in a recession.
Actually, Obama's approval rating is pretty much exactly at 50%. And he has significant leads in Virginia, Ohio and Florida. Moreover, the trend is slightly but importantly up. Saying it is "hovering" makes it seem a more fragile finding than it really is. Moreover, history suggests that Romney probably needs Obama's approval rating to fall below 47% if he is to have a chance. That may sound a small difference but in a reasonably equally divided country small differences are both difficult to achieve and assume huge significance once their effects are felt.
Furthermore, though it is true that the US economy continues to splutter there is ample evidence that the picture is uneven and that the economy is doing better in Ohio and, most especially, Virginia than is the case across the country as a whole. This too makes a Romney comeback more difficult. The entrails are not good for Mitt in any of these states.
Back to Roberts:
Similarly, America might have outgrown the kind of naked class warfare that induces Bill Clinton to state of the Republicans: "They'll hurt the middle class and the poor and put your future on hold to give the tax cuts to the folks who've been getting it all along."
When in fine pantomime style Clinton asked the Democratic convention about Obama, "Are we better off than when he took office?" the audience all yelled, "Yes!" The truth could not be more different, and therein lies Romney's best hope. A house worth $200,000 in 2008 is typically worth around $140,000 today; many 401(k) retirement funds invested in equity have fallen in value by up to 40 per cent since Obama won the last election. No amount of Democrats shouting "Yes!" can convince Americans who look at their net assets today and know that the true answer is no. Whether that persuades them to go out and vote for Romney is another matter: in Ohio 4 per cent more voters believe Obama is more trustworthy on the economy than Romney; in Virginia it's tied, and in Florida Romney leads on that question by 1 per cent. For all too many Americans, Romney, as one wag put it, "looks like the guy who sacked your dad".
As class warfare goes Clinton's seems pretty timid. He is an unconvincing Bolshevik. No-one contends that these have been years of cheery surplus but most retirement funds are not in fact worth 40% less than they were four years ago. Indeed, a stock market which fell beneath 7,000 points in March 2009 is now well above 13,000. Meanwhile house prices have been rising - albeit modestly - for several months in most of America's largest cities. The housing market is hardly buoyant but it seems to have turned a corner.
Which helps explain why Romney is struggling to carve out a decisive advantage on the key question of which candidate is better placed to manage [sic] the economy.
And, yes, looking like the "guy who sacked your dad" is not a good look either. This, however, is just so mean! Consider this plangent passage:
It seems incredible that a man who was CEO of one of America's most successful companies, who made a personal fortune of over $200 million from his business acumen, who turned round the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and whose whole career seems to personify the American Dream, is lagging on the question of economic competence behind a former community organiser from Chicago who publicly derides entrepreneurship and individual enterprise, and who hadn't run any enterprise before entering politics.
It does seem unfair that a candidate who looks suspiciously like a leading member of the capitalist supermen who were in large part responsible for the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s struggles to win the confidence of people who wonder why these capitalist supermen appear to have escaped more or less scot-free! Why it's almost incredible!
Who would have thought that a candidate who writes off - or is perceived as writing off - 47% of the electorate might also have trouble "connecting" with ordinary folks? Independents disapproved of Romney's comments by two to one: 57-27. (Even one third of Republican voters think worse of Mitt as a result of this blunder.)
And who among us does not think a man whose father was governor of Michigan and whose mother ran for the United States Senate is not the personification of the American dream?
Which means Romney, perplexingly, must depend upon an October surprise. Perhaps there will be a scandal! Then again:
So far the Obama administration has been deft in its handling of its two worst scandals — over the Solyndra stimulus cash misappropriation and the Fast and Furious guns-for-drugrunners affairs — but anything can happen in an October Surprise.
Even Obama's scandals have been penny-ante stuff. Sad face. What else? Well there's always this:
If significant numbers of disappointed left-wing voters punish Obama by not turning out in 2012 he could well lose, but he is probably right to rely on their loathing of the Republicans to herd them into the polling booths once again in November. A reluctant vote counts just as much as an enthusiastic one.
Alas it does. According to Gallup 92% of self-identified liberal Democrats have a favourable view of Obama. So what's left? Well the debates obviously. Roberts concludes with a paragraph on the debates as Mitt's last best hope that, by my count, contains half a dozen "ifs" a few "coulds" and a couple of "mights".
The problem with relying on Hail Mary debates is that there's not very much evidence they've shifted election results. The only years in which there seems to be much evidence of them doing so are 2000 and perhaps 1960. Even then the effects are modest and hard to disentangle from other factors.
Of course in a still-close race even a modest effect could have an impact. But since most of the audience will have already made up their mind I suspect Romney will need to persuade something like - and this is just my guess - 75% of those watching that he's crushed Obama in the debates. That could happen but I wouldn't want to risk much money on it doing so.
One last thing - unmentioned by Roberts - is that the election has already begun. Early voting has started in many states including swing states such as Ohio. Something like one in three votes are likely to be cast before the actual election day in November. This too means the state of the race as it is now matters and it further reduces the impact - if any - of the fabled, ballyhooed October Surprise.
It's not that Roberts' piece is atrociously bad. I mean he had a tough brief! No, the significance is essentially that while you can make some kind of case for why Romney can still win this thing it seems pretty difficult - or at least beyond Andrew Roberts - to make a convincing case for Romney. Could he still win? I guess so. But I wouldn't give him much more than a one in four chance of doing so. Which, since this is a two-horse race, means he a rank outsider and you're punting on hope, not evidence. He needs a real recovery too.
*As Waugh had it:
Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window – you know.
Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution... Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny, and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution underway, just as Jakes had said. There’s the power of the Press for you.
They gave Jakes the Nobel Peace Prize for his harrowing descriptions of the carnage – but that was just colour stuff.