The forthcoming US presidential elections may be an ugly, dirty battle, argues Mark McKinnon
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney
President Barack Obama launched his re-election campaign this weekend with the theme, "Forward".
Not exactly "Hope and Change" and it's not going to win any advertising awards. But it's the right idea. He just needs to frame the race and position himself against Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
And at the end of the day come the election in November, what Team Obama wants is for people to be thinking: "Well, the president got dealt a tough hand but at least things are moving forward in the right direction - and we sure don't want to go backward to the policies of the past that got us into this trouble in the first place."
It's not an easy sell and it's going to be a brutal campaign that will likely come down to one or two swing states and a very thin margin. "Not as bad as the other guy" is not exactly a rallying cry for the ages, but it testifies to the strategic challenges facing Obama - which remind me a lot of 2004 when were trying to figure out a strategy to get George W.Bush re-elected president.
Bush had a tough strategic challenge first time round in 2000. People were generally feeling good about the economy and supported Democrats by double digits on the issues they most cared about. Because Al Gore and the Democrats were the incumbent party, we were in the odd strategic position of having to argue: "Things are great, so it's time for a change."
Flash forward four years to 2004. We were now the incumbent, responsible for difficult and dangerous conflicts overseas and a troubled economy at home. So, the strategic challenge was just the opposite and we had to argue: "Things are really screwed up so let's stay the course."
As we looked at the race, we realised that less than 50 per cent of the country liked George W Bush or his policies. So how do you get to 50 per cent plus one? Well, you pray the other guy is less likeable and that his weaknesses reflect your strengths - which is exactly what we got with John Kerry.
Obama's strategists understand the parallels. And so they launched his campaign timed neatly to the anniversary of Osama Bid Laden's death with ads and the not-so-subtle suggestion that Mitt Romney would not have made the same decision.
Ironically, Republicans were apoplectic and accused Obama of brazen political opportunism. Ironically, because that's exactly what Democrats said when Bush launched his own re-election with ads that referred to 9/11. Democrats protested wildly, which of course, we loved because it just brought more attention to the ads and our message.
It was a trap the Democrats walked right into, and now eight years later, Republicans have just done precisely the same thing. By arguing about the correctness of trumpeting bin Laden's death and Obama's role in it, Republicans just ensured more attention was paid to an issue which is nothing but a winner for Obama.
And Obama didn't even genuflect in the direction of the traditional positive nature of a campaign launch by waiting a couple of weeks before throwing punches. They know what they need to do and didn't waste any time going negative against Romney, with ads raising the issue of his Swiss bank accounts. Like Bush in 2004, Obama wants the election to be a choice between two candidates and not a referendum on himself.
Romney has significant gaps among key electoral blocks, including and especially women and Hispanics. George W Bush needed every hispanic vote he got to win the presidency, and he won with 41 and 44 per cent of their vote in 2000 and 2004 respectively. In recent polling, Romney only managed a 14 per cent share of this same group.
But neither can Obama count on the Messiah-like enthusiasm he generated four years ago, particularly among younger voters who have grown older and more experienced. Polling by the Harvard Institute of Politics, which has been tracking attitudes of young Americans, suggests that "Millennials" - those who reached adulthood in the first decade of this century - are dramatically less enthusiastic and politically engaged than they were in 2008.
And while Obama won independent voters by 52 per cent to 44 per cent in 2008, today independents favour Romney over Obama by 48 to 42 per cent.
So, with Newt Gingrich's announcement last week that he's officially out of the race, Romney is the official nominee of the Republican party. And yesterday President Obama officially launched his re-election campaign with rallies in Ohio and Virginia. The game is finally on. And neither side is particularly excited. The way things are headed, it could be as dreary and ugly as a nil-nil football match with a lot of fouls, that's only decided by a penalty shootout after extra time.