Tonight’s debate could be the most negative presidential debate ever. That’s because the best thing each candidate has going for him is negative opinion of the other guy.
This election was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama. That’s what usually happens when an incumbent is running for re-election. Sometimes the incumbent is popular enough to win re-election (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996). Sometimes he’s not (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992).
The biggest single factor determining the incumbent’s popularity is the economy: good in 1984 and 1996, terrible in 1980 and 1992. By that standard, Obama should be in deep trouble. That’s the big surprise this year. He’s not.
If Obama were running against himself this year, he would lose. But he’s running against Mitt Romney – and that is a race he can win.
He can win because Democrats have managed to frame the election as a choice – not a referendum. It’s not just “keep Obama or fire him”. It’s “keep Obama or hire Romney”. And the simple fact is, most voters don’t want to hire Romney.