As the economy colors and polarizes voters’ attitudes, the Election Day outcome for President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney may be decided on the margins by narrower issues that energize small but crucial slivers of the population.
For three months, the economy by most measures has faltered. Yet the White House contest has remained locked in place, with the incumbent holding on to a slight national lead or in a virtual tie with his rival.
Analysts from both parties have no doubt that absent a defining, unpredictable moment, the race will remain neck and neck until November.
That, several strategists say, means secondary issues such as health care, immigration, education, even little mentioned social issues such as abortion, guns or gay rights could make a difference when targeted to the right audiences. Under those conditions, the advantage, these strategists say, rests with Mr. Obama.
“Part of the power of the presidency, part of the power of incumbency, is having the ability with an executive order to make rules, make effective law that is deeply satisfying to a large group of supporters,” said Steve Schmidt, Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign manager in 2008 and top aide in President Bush’s 2004 re-election operation. “Being able to deliver if you’re an incumbent president for really important parts of the Democratic Party coalition, that’s an enormously important thing.”
Mr. Obama already has moved to shore up his support with certain voting blocs, with directives on birth control and immigration.
He’s given his backing to gay marriage and brawled with congressional Republicans on behalf of lower student-loan rates. Each issue won praise from disparate groups of voters, many of whom had voiced frustration with the president or whose enthusiasm for Mr. Obama had been waning.
“In every single state, there will be micro-targeted advertisement, direct mail, or online campaign to get voters out there to kind of hit them on those personal issues that are important to them,” said Rodell Mollineau, president of a pro-Obama political organization, American Bridge. “Whether you’re pro-choice or [anti-abortion], pro-immigration or anti-immigration, you will be touched one way or the other.”
The role of these secondary issues is similar to the part that gay-marriage ballot initiatives played in the 2004 contest between Mr. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry. That election was dominated by the war in Iraq and national security issues. Though the extent to which 11 ballot issues, especially ones in Michigan and Ohio, helped turn out Bush voters eight years ago is a matter of debate, many analysts think the initiatives at least primed the vote for the incumbent.
As for Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama, “neither of them seems to be delivering a knockout blow on the economy, and that’s what does raise these issues and their salience,” said Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida who researched the role ballot initiatives played in the 2004 election.
For three months, the economy has created jobs at a snail’s pace, and the unemployment rate has inched up from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent. Economic growth has slowed, consumer confidence is down, and a strong majority of the public views the country heading in the wrong track.
For all that, an Associated Press/GfK poll last month had Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama in a statistical tie and a Washington Post-ABC poll last week had them even at 47 percent each. More remarkable, a majority in both polls - 56 percent in the AP poll and 58 percent in the Post-ABC survey - said they think Mr. Obama would win re-election.
The Romney camp says the contest is still taking shape and that Mr. Romney is just now beginning to garner a national profile.
“You still have a president who is enjoying the benefits of incumbency,” said Kevin Madden, a senior Romney adviser. “He gets a lot more attention, and has a higher profile with voters.”
By John Solomon
How the government's punishing of the exposure of official wrongdoing can linger for years
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
A carefully guided tour through the confusing world of modern bookselling and publishing.
“Right Angles” explores serious subjects, such as the Islamization of the Middle East and delegitimization of Israel, with humor, candor and a twist.
Columns from Voices around the World talking about the events, people, politics and social issues that concern us wherever, and whoever, we are.
Weekly agitation from a columnist who many believed to be one of the least likely to become known as a Conservative Republican.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall
NRA kicks off annual convention