HAMILTON, Montana — Three months into this general election campaign, it’s become clear that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have made drastically different bets on what will motivate voters this November — choices that are playing out in two campaigns so different they might as well be running in different elections.
For Obama, it has been a summer of gritty engagement: Sweaty campaigning, dramatic and intensely tactical — not to say cynical — policy moves aimed at specific constituencies. For his part, Romney has kept it cool and vague, staying largely off the trail and out of the weeds while his campaign plays out in 30-second television spots.
“They’re running two different campaigns,” marveled one Democrat close to the Obama campaign last week. “It’s like different races.”
It is also roughly the reverse of what a traditional re-election fight: The challenger is running a Rose Garden campaign, while the president stumps frantically, far from the South Lawn.
Obama’s is a campaign of active persuasion. In the past two weeks he went on a two-day bus tour through Ohio and Pennsylvania, took a day trip to Iowa, and embarked on a two-day tour of Virginia. He campaigned through a monsoon in Richmond and sweated through oppressive heat that sent 13 supporters to the hospital in Pittsburgh. Obama will be back in Ohio on Monday on another campaign trip to the state — his third visit in a month — followed up by a two-day swing through Florida.
Romney, by contrast, is barely visible. He absorbed attacks on his record at Bain Capital through a quiet, week-long vacation at his lakeside home in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. His next stop was New York’s posh Hamptons, where he held three fundraisers last Sunday, before heading to other resorts — one in Wyoming, and another here in Montana, with only brief detours for a campaign event in Colorado and an inclusive gesture in the direction of the NAACP. Then he was back in Wolfeboro for a long weekend at home. All in, aside from his five-day symbolic bus tour last month, Romney’s campaign schedule has largely been defined by his fundraising commitments.
The difference is even clearer on the policy side, as Obama has made overtures to both swing voters and his base, while Romney has remained vague to avoid alienating voters.
In the three months since the start of the campaign, Obama made high-profile policy moves on gay marriage and illegal immigration, and restarted his push to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans in a push toward fairness. He’s absorbed attacks that these were tactical moves, largely on the grounds that, as the Democratic strategist James Carville recently gloated, they were effective tactics.
Romney, instead, has remained at 30,000 feet. His main policy push has been reiterating a tried-and-true promises to repeal ObamaCare and bring down the deficit, while taking great pains not to get pinned down on specific policy positions.
Both approaches — Obama’s intense, even desperate engagement; Romney’s cool, vague detachment — have their advocates.
“Obama was giving candy to all the party children who weren’t happy with him,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson. “Romney’s pointing out the flaws in his argument using the most effective tool there is — TV ads.”
But the Obama campaign stresses the paramount importance of their massive grassroots and digital efforts to identify and turn out the voters they need on Election Day.
“They’ll have an army of supporters — maybe not as many as last time, but far more efficiently deployed,” said a Democratic operative close to the Obama campaign. “What will Romney have? A few bought-for door-knockers?”
That Romney has prioritized fundraising above all else is not surprising that he has to catch up on Obama’s year-long advantage — not to mention it’s something he’s professionally good at. But this isn’t just a matter of convenience. Aides and allies suggest that Romney’s making a more pragmatic decision: His campaign sees more value in advertising than it does in voter interactions.
Over two weeks on the road with both candidates — across six states — the differences are hard to miss.
Romney and his wife, Ann, have repeatedly brushed off criticism that he has difficulty connecting with voters, but he has eschewed opportunities to prove the conventional wisdom wrong. He rarely does “OTRs,” — surprise stops not included on his public schedule, but geared toward local press — while Obama frequently does one or two such stops at restaurants and ice cream shops when he’s on the road.
Romney’s campaign sees the election as a referendum on Obama — and their role in the election akin to waving a neon sign at their candidate on November 6th. Their belief is that the American people will ultimately reward him with their votes simply because he is not Barack Obama.
“Clearly with those sorts of negative things it’s going to be a referendum,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, mentioning a host of economic data points that still haven’t returned to pre-2008 levels.
But even Walker thinks Romney may need to do more.
“Gov. Romney’s challenge is that he’s got to tell voters, I think, clearly and boldly what he will do to make it better,” he said.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, is motivated by something closer to fear. His aides are intensely aware that Obama has failed to deliver an economic recovery on the scale the Administration at one point promised, and they fear they can’t match the massive fundraising advantage held by Romney’s and the outside groups supporting him. There is also the fact that while Obama is still personally popular, many of his legislative accomplishments like ObamaCare are not.
For Obama, the personal connections, the narrative, are his way out from his troubles. His biggest regret, he told CBS News’ Charlie Rose on Thursday, was his failure to “tell a story” that inspired optimism in the American people. The president is trying to connect where Romney cannot — on the road and on local television — and also with policy overtures to discrete voting blocs.
“I think his self-deprecating assessment is pretty accurate — especially where health care is concerned,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
“There is no question that the weakness going into this race is that the White House has not done an adequate — has not done a good enough — job explaining the extraordinary successes they have accomplished on so many fronts,” said Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. “That’s the job of the president over the next few months.”
“President Obama’s a great orator, he’s a great speaker — a loveable guy — being out on the road is the right thing for him,” Shumlin said. “If I were Mitt Romney’s advisers, I’d keep him up on Lake Winnipesaukee. He puts his foot in his mouth more often than not…I think they’ve got a smart strategy trying to keep him away from the public.”
The current squabbles over Bain Capital serve as the most trying test yet for both campaign strategies and visions for the race. Romney’s five-network blitz on Friday marked a realization that the campaign could not simply avoid the issue altogether. But as questions linger, Romney has shown an unwillingness to answer them. And while Obama’s campaign and its allies turn to sharp and negative attacks on Romney’s record, he risks a core strength: His likability.