Sports and political campaigns have a lot in common. Underdogs sometimes win; favorites sometimes lose. Not always, to be sure, and maybe not even most of the time. But often enough to make what is happening in this year’s presidential campaign not all that surprising.
The sports analogy is most clearly evident with my long-suffering baseball team, the Dodgers. At the start of the current season, they were, on paper, no better than an also-ran for the National League pennant, featuring a team that consisted of three star players and a bunch of nobodies. Pennant winners aren’t picked (by those who study these things) with that kind of a lineup.
So, what did the Dodgers do? They stormed out to a fantastic start, compiling the best record in baseball through the first third of the season. They were playing way over their heads, getting many lucky breaks, and winning lots of games that, on paper, they should have lost.
Then as they started to come down to earth, acting more like a team that would be fortunate to win half its games, the new owners (Magic Johnson and his deep-pocket pals) started to make deals. They acquired a former superstar named Hanley Ramirez, who figured to be a major upgrade offensively. Then they acquired a starting pitcher and a leadoff hitter to fill two other glaring holes. And then, several weeks ago, they pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Boston Red Sox, picking up three former all-stars, one of whom, Adrian Gonzalez (a power-hitting first baseman) was thought to all but guarantee them a playoff run once the regular season ended.
But, as many a sports fan can tell you, what you have on paper doesn’t mean squat. “You gotta win ‘em on the field.” And so, since the Dodgers brass made all those great (on paper) moves, the team has absolutely tanked, falling from a lead in their division to a distant second to the Giants, and now, not even qualifying for the extended playoffs, which this year will add a second wild card team in each league.
It has all left avid fans of the team (like me) completely befuddled. How can this team, which looks so good on paper, be this poor on the field?
So much for the sports analogy. On the political side, a similar story may be unfolding in this year’s presidential race. On paper, the Republicans should be looking at a relatively easy win.
The main reason for this forecast is the economy, which is languid at best, the recovery, such as it is, somewhat akin to a watched pot of water on a hot stove. Yes, the thinking is, it’s simmering, but it’s been doing that for a while now and still seems nowhere near boiling.
The incumbent is likeable enough, but, even with his pleasing personality and the Osama bin Laden trophy on his mantle, his approval ratings are precariously close to the levels that one-term presidents usually sport when they are about to go down to defeat.
Armed with the best thing the “out” party can hope for—a failed economy—the Republicans only had to avoid a disaster in the primary campaign that ended last spring. To be specific, they had to avoid selecting one of the clowns who were trying to be the anti-Mitt alternative. And they did give just about all of them a good once over. (Recall the brief days in the sun of Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and even Ron Paul.)
But the voters ultimately rejected (one after another) that bunch of right-wing weirdos and instead settled on the one guy who seemed like a sure bet, on paper, at least.
He was a moderate (in today’s political lexicon) who wasn’t overly committed to that crazy far-right stuff (like destroying Medicare and bombing Iran), who could sound respectful of women on things like abortion and contraception, could appeal to Hispanics by supporting things like the Dream Act, and maybe even attract some disenchanted black voters by stressing the need for equal opportunity in the free market system he espoused.
Yes, Mitt Romney seemed like the ideal choice to run against Barack Obama. He has the successful business background that would allow him to claim he could run the economy of the country better than the incumbent. He had been attractive enough in liberal Massachusetts to win election there as governor just a decade ago. And, despite some voters’ misgivings about his Mormon faith, he projects the image of a good family man with a clean-cut all-American image that could appeal to those voters who never quite warmed up to the first black president.
And then there’s the math, which also weighs heavily in the challenger’s favor. In winning election in ’08, Obama secured 53.5 percent of the vote. Therefore, all Romney would seem to need is a swing of four percentage points to claim victory. And that figure might be even lower if the disenchanted youth vote stays home and/or if the disappointed liberal vote sits it out and/or if the suppressed black vote just doesn’t this time.
And if you throw in the tens of millions of dollars in Super PAC money that has come his way, with negative ads doing all but turning Barack Obama into a Muslim terrorist, why, it would be almost impossible for Romney to lose.
But, to this point in the campaign, it just hasn’t played out that way, has it?
Turns out, Mitt is just about the worst stump campaigner since Michael Dukakis. And his “bold” V.P pick, Paul Ryan, hasn’t exactly shown himself to be ready for prime time either. (Ryan’s appeal to the party’s base, in that regard, is comparable to Sarah Palin’s, albeit without the glitz and glamour she brought to her ticket.)
And so, with the only post-convention bounce having been Obama’s, and with team Romney starting to succumb to in-fighting and finger-pointing (who did let Clint Eastwood do that empty chair thing?), and with that disastrous 47% fund-raiser tape on continuous replay, what looked so good on paper, just ain’t happening.
Like they say, “you gotta win ‘em on the field.”