University of Southern Mississippi political science professors Allan McBride and Marija Bekafigo see the race for president between incumbent Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shaping up to be a hard fought struggle.
For Obama, a major key to getting re-elected will be figuring out a way to reinvigorate his Democratic base, McBride said. But a troubled economy and the ability of Republicans to frame the debate around budget deficits are also factors.
“The economy is still a mess - not as bad a mess as when the president first took office, but still troubled and not helped by the instability in Europe,” he said.
McBride said Republicans have again successfully framed the debate between the two candidates about budget deficits as opposed to overall economic performance. “They think, and want the public to think, that the key to improved economic performance is balancing the budget – but the historical evidence suggests just the opposite,” he said.
In assessing the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, Bekafigo said Obama's biggest asset is his ability to communicate with the public. “We may not like what he has to say but I believe he is open, forthright and seems to honestly want to do what is right,” she said. “I think he has connected with the people, but his policies are not working or are not working fast enough.”
She sees Romney’s strength as being his business background and experience as a CEO, but weak in communicating his goals are for the country.” He hasn't been able to translate being a business CEO into CEO of the U.S.,” she said. “He needs to communicate a clear plan and message for creating jobs and boosting the economy.
“Forget about what he did or didn't do at Bain Capital. What is he going to do if he wins?”
Bekafigo said another strength for Romney is his wife, Ann, and believes he should increase her involvement in the campaign. “I'd like to see her become a more visible campaigner for him,” she said.
She doesn’t believe there’s much else Obama can do to influence voters, either with his base or with independents.
“He has made the liberal base happy with his health care plan and stance on gay marriage, but contrary to what people think, he doesn't have that much control over the economy,” she said. “He could have allowed the Keystone pipeline deal to go through. I think that might have won him some independent votes.”
Some polls show the lead tightening between the two. Still, the president can point to some successes in his nearly four years as commander-in-chief, McBride said, and he has the benefit of a strong organization running his re-election bid.
“Obama is a shrewd, capable politician, has smart people around him and will run a smart campaign,” he said. “He’s had some success, but the economy is working against them. He has a chance, but this election won’t be a slam-dunk for him.”
Like McBride, Bekafigo sees the economy as being the key issue in the campaign. “There may be other issues that gather our attention, the media's attention, or certain segments of the population but in the end, people want jobs and financial security,” she said.
The economy operates in long, slow cycles, Bekafigo said, with change not coming quick especially in the forward/positive motion. “Obama's presidency may be turning us around, but voters want immediate gratification,” she said. “Many will look back on the previous three and a half years and feel as if he could have done more.”
The economy is Romney’s strongest case for unseating the incumbent president. “If Romney can communicate the message that not only is he a successful businessman, but he knows how to turn the country around and especially how to create jobs, he can win,” she said.
Both candidates have to appeal to independent voters as they work to get their own party's voters to the polls, Bekafigo said. “This is where Obama may struggle,” she said. “In 2008, he was able to energize some of the youth and those who would not normally vote, but their enthusiasm has waned.”
In contrast, Bekafigo says Romney has the Tea Party segment fired up and ready to turn out the vote for him. “Women, too, may be energized this season if Democrats and Republicans continue to debate and discuss health care and women's health issues,” she said.
Unfortunately Mississippi will have little if any impact on the presidential race because it is a solid “red” state that will almost certainly be carried by Romney, she said. With the exception of the Republican Presidential Primary, Mississippi will be ignored by the candidates, Bekafigo said, in sharp contrast to her native Florida where airwaves have been “barraged” with Obama and Romney advertising for several months. Both candidates have already made multiple campaign stops there and in other swing states.
“It is disheartening that the candidates rarely, if at all, make stops here (in Mississippi) or even buy airtime for TV ads,” she said.
Because so much money was poured into the recent Wisconsin recall election, McBride said it will not be surprising to see a similar approach taken in the presidential election. He believes Obama should be prepared for a last-minute media blitz that will have to be countered.
“I remain unconvinced that you can buy an election but I may be proven wrong,” McBride said. “If the Republicans can persuade the independent voter to either support their cause or to at least not vote for the other guy, then the money may be helpful.”
Media wanting to contact McBride or Bekafigo for further comments on the presidential election can reach them by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com. For information about the Southern Miss Department of Political Science, International Development and International Affairs, online visit http://www.usm.edu/polisci/.