Obama banks on ‘big Mo’ from Charlotte

Listen to this article


If Twitter is any guide then Barack Obama may have extracted from Charlotte what Mitt Romney singularly failed to get last week from Tampa – momentum, or what George H. W. Bush once called “the big Mo”. Partly because of what the New York Times described as Michelle Obama’s “high definition” fashion power, the first night of the Democratic convention garnered 3m tweets against 4m for the entire three days in Tampa.

It went off the charts for Bill Clinton’s epic – some would say Fidel Castro-esque – 48-minute primetime address on Wednesday. If Tampa was “good enough” for Mr Romney, but nothing more, Charlotte looks likely to qualify as a boost for Mr Obama’s re-election chances.

But momentum, like many things in life, is not what it used to be. Even if Mr Obama does emerge from Charlotte with “small Mo”, the chances are that it will evaporate pretty quickly. His first hurdle comes on Friday morning with the publication of the jobs numbers for August.

Anything higher than 200,000 new jobs would cement whatever uplift Mr Obama has gained in Charlotte. Anything below 100,000 would kill it in its tracks and could even tilt the election to Mr Romney.

The US economy needs to create roughly 125,000 jobs a month simply to keep pace with population growth. Mr Clinton said that voters would eventually “feel” Mr Obama’s tepid economic recovery. A bad jobs report between now and November could turn feelings the wrong way.

Second, time may reveal that the Democrats overplayed their hand in Charlotte. From Lilly Ledbetter, the equal pay for women activist, to Sandra Fluke, the law student who became a conservative hate figure for having campaigned for free contraception, the line-up was heavily geared towards the Democratic base – and particularly towards the women’s vote, which already leans heavily in Mr Obama’s favour.

Polls show that voters have moved strongly towards acceptance of gay marriage. But the numbers on abortion are much more nuanced. Most Americans would prefer it remain “safe, legal and rare” in Mr Clinton’s original formulation. At times in Charlotte it sounded like the Democratic base wanted to go back to pre-Clinton days.

Either way, the 2012 Democratic convention has been the most socially liberal since 1988 when Michael Dukakis was its hapless nominee. Such talk has undoubtedly enthused the liberal base. But it may also have riled up social conservative voters.

Finally, most Americans have long since decided which way they will vote, which gives little room for either nominee to break away. “I don’t know if there are any undecided voters left, do you?” Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, asked in Charlotte this week. She had a point. Undecideds are not as rare as the lesser spotted owl. But they are increasingly hard to find.

And yet, if the past two weeks have revealed anything, it is a tale of contrasting moods. The atmosphere in Tampa was often subdued. Mr Romney put on a reasonable performance. But he failed to ignite anything like the passion Mr Obama’s supporters have shown in Charlotte.

Democrats, and particularly the young, have had time to overcome their disappointment with Obama. Republicans were already disappointed with Mr Romney before he became their nominee.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.