This past weekend I was horsing around with my daughter, playing in the parking lot with a green Buzz Lightyear "four square" ball, and it got me thinking about four square. Many of us became familiar with this playground activity as youngsters; it involves a person standing in each square and the ball being used in a variety of ways to eliminate someone in an opposing square. The game features all sorts of rules and strategies that have changed over time. My adult sons actually have gotten into it, adding their own sets of rules and tactics. (As an aside, it is awesome to see adults take up the games of our youth.)
These thoughts led me to this year's presidential race - Lord have mercy, Dowd, are you sure you're not having a wee nip of the Irish sacrament? - and what today could be considered four areas of concern where the candidates need to have their own tactics and strategies. Let's see where the ball bounces and lands …
ONE: There has been considerable discussion of the demographics and possible voting patterns of this year's electorate. Much has been said of Mitt Romney underperforming among women and Latino voters. This is a problem for him. Looking at past history, if Romney does not improve dramatically among these two groups, you can safely say the presidency is a distant dream for him. President Obama is currently doing as well or better among these two groups than he did when he comfortably won them in 2008. But Obama is extremely weak and underperforming among middle-class white males. Looking at head-to-head and his job performance numbers, Obama is in a very vulnerable position because of his lack of voting strength among this group. Again, looking at history, you would have to say that if he doesn't dramatically improve, Obama would have a hard time winning re-election. This is why the race is within the margin of error today and will stay close for at least a while, and why it's important to look at all voting groups and not just a couple to get a feel for this race.
TWO: Keep your eye on economic indicators much more than ad spending, candidate travel, the machinations of activists or any given speech. Data such as unemployment rates, consumer confidence and inflation will be much more determinative of this race than all those other factors combined. These fiscal factors are a major component of Obama's job approval, and, as history tells us, are key to whether he gets re-elected. The trajectory of the economic data over the coming weeks and months will also be the biggest impact on how both Obama and Romney talk about the economy and their plans. Their speeches and policies will have to be adjusted along the way, based on whether that data is good, bad or neutral.
THREE: It already seems Romney is sending a signal about the type of vice president he's seeking. Super PACs supporting him already have begun to attack Obama for his "celebrity" and accusing him of not paying attention to the country's problems. This tells me that Romney isn't going to do some highly-charged celebrity choice of his own; you won't see any "game change" pick like Sarah Palin. My guess is, his ice cream choice in picking a running mate will be more plain vanilla than rocky road.
FOUR: If I was running the Obama campaign, I would take most of the money in my bank account that has to be spent before the conventions (primary dollars), and overwhelm Romney with a national ad buy. Obama currently has a 10-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage, and because Romney is still in a weak position from the primary process, the president shouldn't give Romney any time to recover. I would spend a major sum of money on ads framing this race - and I would do it nationally, not just in some targeted state buy. This is really a national campaign, and the Obama campaign should use their advantage and overwhelm Romney over the next six weeks.
That's my four square analysis on the race, and my last bit of advice to the campaigns - and anyone else - is to grab a ball when you get the chance, take your mind off your worries and initiate a fun playground challenge. Because in the end, the campaigns that laugh the most and have the most fun are nearly always the ones that win.