TAMPA, Fla. — The 2012 presidential election raises two seemingly contradictory questions:
First, given a stagnant economy and a sour public mood, why isn't Mitt Romney doing better? A nation that overwhelmingly views itself as traveling on the wrong track should be more favorable to the challenger. Unemployment is high, consumer confidence is low and yet the race is roughly even.
Second, given the continental pounding of negative ads Romney has lately received, why isn't he doing worse? The Obama campaign — recently outspending Romney by three-to-one — has delivered the attacks it believes most effective: Bain, Medicare, unreleased tax returns. But President Obama's lead in the polling average has dropped from four points in early August to about one point today.
Both questions actually have the same answer. The reason Romney does not dominate or collapse is because the American electorate is evenly divided and highly polarized. Obama has spent the last year effectively shoring up the Democratic coalition, including minorities, single women and college-educated voters. Romney has (for the most part) solidified the support of reliably Republican voters. Each candidate has gained his expected 45 percent or 46 percent of the electorate — but not much more.
In an ideologically charged election, decided voters are not easily budged from their natural predispositions. Republicans tend to think a second Obama term would mean the consolidation of a European economic and social model on America soil. Democrats tend to believe that GOP rule would incorporate the least attractive elements of Puritanism and Social Darwinism. In this environment, a TV commercial on welfare reform or Bain Capital doesn't change many minds. It becomes easy for the candidates to drop $1 billion on advertisements that barely move the numbers.
This divided, ideological electorate represents the success of Obama's political strategy. He would, of course, have preferred to run as the unifying, transformative candidate of 2008. But his uncreative liberalism and poor economic performance did not allow it. So he settled on polarization as his least bad strategy — pitting the middle class against the wealthy and embracing the culture war on issues such as abortion. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos describes Obama's approach: "If you can't win the middle, shrink the middle. Polarize until there is no middle left." This strategy has maintained Obama as a slight front-runner, which, in a cranky, discontented nation, is a major political accomplishment.
Romney has done very little to challenge or overturn Obama's approach. A tough primary season pushed Romney rightward on a range of issues. And he seems uninclined to pick moderating fights with his party as Bill Clinton did in 1992 or George W. Bush did in 2000.
Future Republican leaders — say Marco Rubio or Chris Christie — may attempt to rebrand their party. Romney has embraced the brand, pronouncing it filling, fiber-rich and nutritious. His campaign seems convinced that a fairly generic Republican, who is viewed as responsible and competent, will win in the end. This is also not an irrational political calculation. It doesn't seem likely that the (rather small) margin of undecided voters will break late toward the incumbent when they are convinced that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. If Romney is seen as a broadly acceptable alternative on Election Day, he is likely to win.
Which is why Obama must make Romney unacceptable. It is not enough for him to be mistaken. He must be seen as radical, callous, secretive, heartless and even criminal. This is Obama's hope: to shore up his base while destroying Romney as a viable alternative among undecided voters.
It would probably be easier to play Romney's political hand. Obama has been in the electoral danger zone for some time. Since the summer of 2011, his job approval rating has almost never been north of 50 percent — a durable public judgment. As a result, Romney has a fairly low bar to clear. He doesn't need to be a charismatic ideological leader like Ronald Reagan, or a party reformer like the younger Bush. He just needs to appear competent, well intentioned and reassuring.
Reassurance will be the main goal of Romney's convention speech and debate performances. The platform for these dives is high; their degree of difficulty is not.
Either Romney or Obama, however, will face the same challenge. Their victory is likely to reinforce, not change, the fundamental dynamic of American politics. They will govern a polarized nation after a polarizing election.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.