Campaign 2012 has become a rare contest -- a referendum on the challenger. Our smart screens are beaming loads of dumb stuff at us these days, as pols, pollsters and pundits micro-think the meaning of those essentially meaningless initial post-convention public opinion surveys.
Never mind that we all know the bounces and blips in those initial numbers usually last about as long as an out-of-shape pundit can pedal a news cycle.
Missed in all of this is the real significance of this post-convention period: 2012 has morphed into a most unconventional election. It will require a rethinking of the conventional wisdom that says U.S. presidential elections are mainly a referendum on the incumbent's performance as a leader.
The 2012 presidential race has become a flip-side presidential campaign -- a referendum not so much on the incumbent but on the challenger.
Voters from the political left, center and right have basically concluded that President Barack Obama has not been as bold and strong a leader as they expected him to be -- especially when it came to leading the nation to recover from the catastrophic Great Recession that began in the last year of George W. Bush's presidency.
Indeed, even Obama himself has said in recent interviews that he came into office not realizing how much there was to the job -- that he thought it was mainly about just getting the policies right. Obama has said he fell short by failing to realize he needed to educate Americans as to what needed to be done and why.
So it is that independent voters have been trying to take the measure of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But in the Republican primaries and ever since, Romney too often presented himself as a candidate who will say whatever is needed -- on domestic, global and social policies -- to appeal to any constituency du jour. So far, he has failed to demonstrate he can be bold enough and strong enough to be a better president than Obama.
That's where the Democratic and Republican candidates were going into their conventions. And that is where they still are today. Romney and Obama did well at their conventions, but failed to do all they needed to do and could have done to help themselves.
Romney's convention speech seemed to have been teed up by keynoter Chris Christie, as the New Jersey governor extolled at length that Republicans would be the party that tells voters the tough truths. But then Romney told no tough truths at all. No patriotic calls for us to share the burden to make America economically strong again. Nor did Romney even mention the war in Afghanistan or the sacrifices of our troops -- omissions that would have been unthinkable for a generation of Republicans, even in America's most war-weary times.
Obama's convention speech similarly seemed to have been teed up by former President Bill Clinton's magnificent defense of what Obama accomplished in halting and reversing the massive monthly job losses he inherited -- resulting in 30 consecutive months of private-sector job gains. Also, companies have rebounded strongly under Obama, having earned huge profits.
Yet companies are banking their profits, not investing them back into the economy by purchasing capital goods or hiring more employees. Industry executives lack confidence the government will make tough choices to halt the spiraling national debt.
Obama could have seized the moment by unveiling a bold new path forward, in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" and John F. Kennedy's "New Frontier." Perhaps a call for a "New Democracy" -- with the president urging Americans to lead their leaders by demanding that Congress finally make the tough compromises to enact real reforms. Instead, Obama was typically inspirational but not bold.
Because this election has become a referendum on challenger Romney -- more specifically, a referendum on a potential for leadership Romney hasn't yet demonstrated -- Obama may narrowly win re-election.
But it is instructive to recall the events of 1980, a time of economic strife when many disillusioned Americans were also very unsure about the challenger, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan. At their convention, even Reagan's top strategists were so concerned Americans lacked confidence in their nominee that they brokered a bizarre power-sharing deal to convince former President Gerald Ford to run as Reagan's vice president. It almost happened, then fell apart. But then Reagan performed well enough in the debates -- and defeated President Jimmy Carter in a landslide.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)