One of the inherent problems of running a campaign that keeps asking voters if they are better off now than they were four years ago is that, for many, the answer is yes. No matter how hard they try to paint a picture of doom and gloom, the simple truth is that in every measurable way, the economy is in much better shape now than it was four years ago. And most voters know this. While many may be frustrated at the slow progress of the recover, most of them acknowledge that things are at least moving in the right direction.
The right direction / wrong track numbers have been slowly improving for the Obama campaign, though they are still not where they want them to be. That's why they have been harping on the gains made over the last two plus years. It's a message that is slowly starting to resonate within the electorate and, in the process, taking some of the air out of the Romney campaign balloon. And no one is more surprised, pleasantly so, than James Carville, who was once Bill Clinton's chief strategist and, as such, knows a thing or two about running a successful campaign.
"Our fear was that the progress message would sound out of touch and fail to give those voters who are on the edge financially hope that life would be better in a second term, particularly when Mitt Romney was on the air with his plans to create 12 million jobs," Carville wrote in a memo with his partner Stanley Greenberg, who together run Democracy Corps, a public opinion polling and strategic advice group.
A recent Obama campaign ad featuring Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, spoke to "the President's economic achievements." When compared with a Romney ad that was far more critical of the President, the Freeman ad was viewed more favorably.
"The hardest thing to do in all of political communications is how do you deal with a bad but somewhat improving economy," Carville said in an interview on Good Morning America last June. "And the skill, or the way to thread the needle in saying things are getting better when people don't feel like they are getting better. We fought with it and didn't do that great a job in the early years of the Clinton Administration. It is not like someone has the holy grail of how to do this."
Well, don't look know, but the Obama campaign may have just acquired one and, if they can manage to hold onto it for another two and a half weeks, they may well end up rewriting presidential history.
Actually, the nagging issue for both campaigns is that the current state of the economy seems to be primarily responsible for the current deadlock in the race. On the one hand, things are not as bad as they were four years ago. If they were, the Romney campaign would be substantially ahead in the polls. On the other hand, while the economy has improved, it isn't improving fast enough for a lot of people. And that's why the Obama campaign isn't significantly ahead in the polls.
Bottom line: Whoever wins the campaign ad war will win the White House.