The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Oct 142012

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that for Romney to have a chance of catching up with Obama at least one of three things had to happen. At the top of that list of three: Have a really good performance in the debates. It was already clear at that time that a near-record share of voters would be tuning into the debates and that most voters had very low expectations for Romney’s performance. Those who have paid some attention to Romney over the years and know that in fact he comes across as pretty coherent and pretty smart in these debate formats suspected that a real “expectations upset” was in the offing.

In the first debate, that kind of upset was just what happened. The Romney campaign, once despondent, is now re-energized. The Obama campaign, once on confident cruise-control, is now scurrying madly.

More recently, Team Obama may have hoped that their side would get a material boost from the good-news BLS report showing the unemployment rate sinking below 8.0 percent.  Not much boost there, though some on the GOP side (like the inimitable Jack Welch, celebrity ex-CEO) made themselves look silly by accusing the Labor Department civil servants of participating in a vast conspiracy.

Then came the VP debate starring Biden and Ryan, Silent (born 1942) versus Gen-Xer (born 1970). Who won that one? It’s like what they said about Nixon-Kennedy. If you just read the transcript or listened to the audio, I think Biden probably won. But those who watched it probably thought that Ryan came across as more composed, more respectful, less nasty. Treasure this moment: Not often that you will ever see a Gen-Xer seem nicer, head to head, against a Silent.  Imagine Jim Lehrer debating Glenn Beck. Or Bill Moyers debating eminem.  It’s as though the Xer, not the Silent, once had etiquette lessons.  Next thing you know, we’ll be firing all those 70ish Silent WalMart greeters and telemarketers who (we thought) have been so effective at “nice,” and replacing them with 40something Ryan clones.  OK, maybe not. At any rate, the verdict is in, and the VP debate did not give Obama any perceptible poll bounce. Both debates, I think, gave Team Romney a huge “niceness” boost, which is something their ticket really needed to help them with the all-important undecided voter.

Last time, I cited realclearpolitics to show how badly things were going for Romney.  At that time, he was at least five percentage points behind Obama in the national polls—and hadn’t led in a national poll in nearly two months.  Well, that has certainly changed.  As of this moment, Romney is marginally ahead by about one percentage point—and it’s Obama who hasn’t led in a national poll since just before the first debate.

I also cited a devastating survey by Pew showing Romney trailing Obama by eight percentage points and trailing him as well in virtually every measure of both likeability and competence.  Well, that too has changed.  A new Pew survey reports that voters (especially independents, 72% to 14%) overwhelmingly thought that Romney won the debate—and that among all registered voters Romney has completely erased Obama’s substantial prior lead. Among “likely voters,” indeed, it’s Romney who now enjoys a four percentage point lead.  And who is viewed more “favorably”?  Well, believe it or not, Pew now says that the two are now tied in favorability (Romney at 50%, Obama at 49%).  A month ago, Obama led on this measure by 10 percentage points (Romney at 45%, Obama at 55%).

OK, now let’s dig a bit deeper into this generationally.  To make this easy to comment on, let me reproduce the Pew crosstabs onto this screen as follows:

Overall, in this survey’s favorability rating, Obama lost 6 points and Romney gained 5.  Net, +11.  Note that Romney’s gains were greater among women than men (+15 versus +6). I would chalk this up to likeability, but then again I’m sure I’d be accused of sexism if I tried to defend this opinion. The gains were disproportionate among whites rather than blacks (+15 versus +3). And, in age groups, it’s fascinating to see large gains for Romney among the Silent (+15), Xers (+21), and Millennials (+17)—but actually a slight gain for Obama among Boomers (‒3).

Can anyone tell me why the debate struck Boomers so differently—that is, less favorably for Romney—than it did all other generations?  If so, please let me know.  My own opinion is simply that Romney has never seemed attractive in the eyes of his own generation.  Boomers want a “values” candidate, and in Romney they see an analytical whiz kid, long on numbers, short on soul.  In the GOP primaries, he consistently lost to the likes of Gingrich and Santorum among Boomers even while just as consistently doing best among Millennials and (a bit less consistently) among Xers. That’s my take. I’d like to know yours.

Let me add this further breakdown of the Pew survey, this time looking solely at white voters.  Since most of the movement in candidate support throughout year has been greatest among whites and least among blacks, it makes the generational point in more striking terms.

Note first the change among white Americans age 50+: Very little, a mere two points, one point less for Obama and one point more for Romney.  Now look at white Americans under age 50: A vast shift of 28 points! As in the earlier (all ethnicities) table, there are not large differences by income or education. But there are big differences by age. Whatever Romney is doing, it is certainly turning the heads of whites under 50 across the board.

Finally, let’s look at another Pew report, which—though pre-debate—is also bad news for the Obama camp.  It shows that Americans under age 30 are considerably less engaged in 2012 than they were in 2008.  The shares of under-30s saying they have “given a lot of thought to the election” or “follow campaign news very closely” are both down by 17 percentage points—a much steeper decline than for older generations.  The share of youth saying they will “definitely” vote is down 9 points (from 72 to 63 percent), while that share has actually risen for all older Americans. Needless to say, Obama depends upon a huge under-30 voting margin to offset what he will surely lose among older voters.

In there any silver lining in this report for Obama? Maybe this: Engagement is down less for young women (who lean more Democratic) than for young men; and it is not down at all for young African Americans (who lean 20-to-1 Democratic). With luck, Obama may be able to maintain the intensity of the pro-Obama youth preference, even if he cannot maintain the overall magnitude of the youth vote.

My own prediction for the election remains unchanged. As I have said all along, I think Obama will win by a modest margin (smaller than 2008, but not a cliffhanger). And I think the House will certainly stay GOP and the Senate will be split down the middle.

Back in an earlier blog, I also wrote that my scenario would be a difficult one for the economy, because it would maximize the odds of a damn-the-torpedoes “fiscal cliff” scenario, which might very well throw the economy back into a recession (or worsen the recession if we are already in one). Others are voicing a different opinion.  Since the Dow has been falling ever since Romney’s poll numbers have been rising, they are saying that a Romney victory raises the probability that the deficit will be squeezed faster and that a monetary “hawk” will replace Bernanke at the Fed. OK, I get this: If you believe (like Paul Krugman) that supercharged zero-interest promises and endless fiscal stimulus are all that prevent us from spiraling back down into recession, then, yes, Romney is actually bad news for the economy. Austerity economics sure isn’t working wonders anywhere else in the world. Why should we think we would work well here? I guess this view assumes that Romney would implement austerity. But is that a valid assumption? I’m just asking questions here.