Controversies about Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital, his association with Donald Trump, and Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s criticisms of President Obama‘s campaign have dominated headlines over the last two weeks.
But those events are likely to make little difference in determining who wins in November. Here are the five things you really should be watching:
1. The monthly jobs reports
The real narrative of this election campaign is the economy and voters’ perceptions of it. The nation’s sluggish job growth, with unemployment still above 8 percent, remains the biggest barrier to President Obama’s reelection. It’s what’s driving down his approval ratings and aiding Romney in making his case against the president. Without the weak economy, Romney would have little chance against a president who most voters like personally, according to polls.
So those monthly job reports from the Department of Labor will loom large. They shape how the press covers both the economy and the election, which in turn influences public opinion.
2. Obama’s ground game
Voters have had more than three years to evaluate President Obama, so it’s unlikely his speeches or tactics will dramatically change impressions of him. Instead, the most important work of Obama’s campaign is what his staff in Chicago and key states are doing, particularly in motivating voters under 30, black, or Hispanic, three core groups who turned out in large numbers to vote for Obama in 2008.
For example, in North Carolina, 17 percent of the voters were between ages 18 and 30 in 2008, and Obama won more than 72 percent of the vote among that bloc, helping him win the state by less than 1 percent. If young voters only give Obama 60 percent of their votes, or they are only 13 percent of the electorate in the state, he will have trouble winning North Carolina. These demographic challenges are similar in other states.
Obama aides have privately worried about black men under 30 turning out, for example, because of the high jobless rate among that bloc. This part of the campaign strategy is of course the hardest to see and predict from afar, which is why most attention is focused on events like Romney’s appearance with Trump.
But an Obama victory will require his election operation to turn out his backers in very large numbers. He will need higher black and Hispanic turnout than in 2008 in some states, like North Carolina, to make up for expected losses among white, moderate voters.
3. The European economy
Without covering the details of the economic problems in Greece, Spain and other places in Europe, suffice it to say that challenges to the world economy will affect the U.S. And a slowdown in job creation or a higher jobless rate would cause major problems for the president.
4. Romney’s performance
Voters have largely made up their minds about Obama already. But polls suggest large parts of the electorate know little about Romney. That’s the only reason his decision to appear with Trump on Tuesday could truly matter, as it could cause moderate voters to wonder why he would appear with such a controversial figure.
Similarly, his vice-presidential choice will provide a window into Romney’s thinking and decision-making. (Vice-presidential picks rarely influence who wins the election, but the selection of Sarah Palin 2008 did prevent John McCain from talking about other issues and brought a focus to his process of picking her that didn’t help). If Romney goes with a relatively safe ex-governor or senator, like Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, that pick is unlikely to make much of a difference.
But Romney’s ability to recover from gaffes, handle tough questions from the press and other moves are more important, in part because voters are seeing him up close for the first time.
5. The Debates
The first presidential debate is not until Oct. 3 in Denver. But over the next few months, the candidates will meet twice more, while the vice-presidential nominees also have a debate. Many voters, particularly the 10 percent of the electorate who say they are undecided, are likely to not start paying close attention to the election until then. Those events could make a huge difference in determining who wins.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr