|I know - it creeps me out too|
Under those circumstances, effective campaign strategy is fairly obvious. There is no real need to target the base, their votes can be assumed. So in an effective campaign, everything they do, every speech they give, every ad they run is targeted on a tiny minority of persuadable "swing" voters. To make things worse, campaigns know that, to a large extent, 'red meat' they toss to the base can have a negative effect on swing voters who often are convinced that the base on both sides is too extreme. For an extreme example of how this construct effects the messaging of a campaign, one need look no further than Mitt Romney, who, to whatever extent they deem possible, refuses to take an actual position on anything. They feel this gives them the flexibility to offer platitudes to the swing voters without causing discontent in the base. And to be fair, the modern Republican base is much more uncompromising and inflexible than their opposite numbers on the American Left. Indeed, Romney's greatest electoral challenge is to attempt to accrue 51% of the votes without running afoul of the base's demands for perfect purity and fealty to doctrine.
In this year's election campaigns, however, that longstanding strategy has developed a few wrinkles. For the Democrats, these would be the result of some of Obama's more conservative policies, those that cause him to be seen as a center-right technocrat and a traitor to the liberal project. Those policies include Afghanistan, the drone assassination program, indefinite detention, and his apparent willingness to assist in making deep cuts in popular social programs such as Medicare and Social Security. These policies have clearly had an impact on the Democratic base, as many are choosing to make a statement by voting for a third party candidate or even just staying home. Coupled with the apparent effectiveness of the Republican Party's state-by-state voter suppression efforts, and with the electorate so narrowly divided, this loss of some single - digit support from the previously reliable base could cost Obama his second term.
Of course, things aren't that much better for Romney. The Republican base has cautiously accepted him as their candidate, but they have generally been unwilling to embrace him. They remain suspicious of his Mormon religion, the liberal position he adopted on key issues when he ran for Massachusetts governor, his health-care legacy in that state and his apparent reluctance to commit to some of their preferred platform planks. At the same time, discussion about his role at Bain Capital, his offshore bank accounts, his tax avoidance strategies and his extreme wealth and privilege leave many people disgusted and unwilling to vote for him in spite of substantial ideological alignment.
All of which leaves us with an unprecedented and fascinating sprint to November. Both campaigns will be fighting tooth and nail for the same five or ten percent of persuadable "moderates", not just to put them over the top but to offset losses and defections from their most reliable base voters. It will be interesting to see if, and how, the candidates try to reach out to cement the support of the base. I suspect Obama feels he's done all he needs to do, or is willing to do, with the change in his position on marriage equality. And frankly, it was a smart strategic political move, as there was a great deal of restlessness in the normally solidly Democratic LGBT community. As the Obama campaign focuses on independent and swing voters for the remainder of the campaign it remains to be seen if it will be enough. In a sense, the Romney campaign has the opposite problem. There is still a great deal of distrust in the Republican base, and with the right-wing 'purity police' scrutinizing everything he says and does he has very little flexibility to 'etch-a-sketch' - that is, tack to the center. And this condition leaves him vulnerable in the upcoming debate season, as it will be harder for the Romney campaign to credibly refuse to offer a firm position on specific key issues. Of course, as with his tax returns, they may feel that the heat they'll take for remaining ambiguous on key issues will be easier to deal with than trying to thread the extreme right-wing ideological needle, but it's hard to imagine a candidate remaining that vague through a series of national debates.
So it's shaping up to be a fairly dramatic conclusion. We have a popular and charismatic but deeply flawed incumbent President with a robust, some might even say hysterical opposition and a robotic, unlikable opponent running a deeply ideological and highly personal campaign. In a sense, it is a contest between American celebrity worship and the highly polarized American ideological divide. To the extent that modern media, particularly television, determines the outcome, the Democrats have the advantage. Still, an appeal to American tribal bigotry and distrust still tends to resonate, so we may learn more about ourselves as a people in November than merely who we choose as political leaders.