President Obama is in Nevada this week preparing for tomorrow night's debate with GOP rival Mitt Romney. Nevada isn't a large state: It has just six votes in the electoral college. But it's an important swing state, one that both campaigns are vying to win.
It's also a state with a deeply distressed economy and a voting populace that has flirted with the idea of turning on Democrats it once supported. Which means that Nevada offers a test of the Romney campaign's basic operating theory. And it's a test that, at least for right now, the Romney campaign is failing.
The core premise of the Romney campaign is pretty simple. Swing voters who pulled the lever for Barack Obama in 2008 can be convinced to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012 because of the economy.
The pitch goes something like this: Obama is a decent guy, but he has failed to make good on his promises. His policies haven't worked as well as we all hoped. The economy is still struggling to recover. And so it's time for a change. Vote Romney.
That's a message seemingly tailor-made for Nevada. At 12.1 percent, the state has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, almost a point and a half higher than any other state. The state's housing values have plummeted, and its real estate market remains one of the most distressed in the nation. Fifty-five percent of the state voted for Obama in 2008, and has repeatedly elected the Democrat Harry Reid to the Senate. But in 2010, the state's voters were ready to turn on the top Senate Democrat, whose approval ratings had plummeted; he only won because of the shockingly inept campaign run by his GOP opponent, Sharon Angle.
A swing state. An unusually bad economy. Voters who have indicated a potential willingness to reject Democrats they've voted for in the past. All of these factors make Nevada a nearly perfect state in which to assess the effectiveness of the Romney campaign's core message.
And what we see is that so far it doesn't appear to be working.
Obama leads Romney in the state by an average of 5.2 points, according to the latest RealClearPolitics polling average. One poll by the state retail association shows the two candidates in a tie. But all the other polls, including Rasmussen Reports, show the president up by at least 2 points. Obama has held his lead since at least March, and while Romney closed some of the gap between June and September, President Obama has started to pull away again in recent weeks.
That's not good news for a campaign whose core message is primed to target voters in states like Nevada. And it suggests that Romney's insistence on making an economic case against Obama without making a strong case for himself isn't enough. Romney's basic campaign strategy has been to argue that on the economy, President Obama has gotten it all wrong. And then when asked what he would do instead, Romney's response usually boils down to: President Obama has gotten it all wrong.
Right now, that's not convincing enough people in Nevada for Romney to win. It's not convincing enough people in the nation as a whole. With an average spread of just three points between the two candidates, it's a closer race than a lot of the "it's-all-over" punditry might lead one to believe, but Obama is clearly a stride or two ahead. And I suspect part of the reason why is that even though voters are well aware of Obama's weaknesses, they're still uncertain about Romney's strengths.