Political junkies get excited about the Republican and Democratic national conventions, but for many Americans they provide a stark reminder of how out of touch our political system has become. The strange rituals and bad jokes seem oddly out of place in the 21st century, almost as strange as seeing an engineer use a slide rule rather than an iPad to perform some complex calculation.
While partisan activists tune in when their team's big show is on the air, most unaffiliated voters view the conventions as a waste of time and money. For the past week or so, everyone I know in the political world has been talking about the latest convention buzz. But I live far from Washington, and most people I talk to aren't wrapped up in politics. Among that group, the most common response to mentioning the convention was something along the lines of, "Oh, yeah, I forgot that was going on now."
One of the things Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate ensures is a series of polling questions over the coming months asking voters what's more important: creating jobs or cutting government spending; helping the economy or cutting deficits; repealing the president's health care law or focusing on the economy.
These questions reflect the way official Washington views the world, but they don't make sense in Mainstream America. In Washington, it's a given that more government spending is needed to help the economy. Most Americans hold the opposite view. So when you ask whether cutting spending or helping the economy is more important, the question doesn't make sense. For most Mainstream voters, one leads to the other.
Just 16 percent of voters nationwide believe it was a good idea for the government to provide Solyndra with loan guarantees. The solar power company went bankrupt and stuck taxpayers with the tab for a half-billion dollars.
The Obama administration generally has responded to questions about the program in the way a venture capital firm would respond to questions about a portfolio loss. They note that similar government investments have turned out just fine and that it's only fair to look at their portfolio as a whole.
Consumer confidence fell to the lowest levels of 2012 this past week. Most Americans believe that both the economy and their own personal finances are getting worse. Just 25 percent believe the economy is getting better, and only 22 percent say the same about their personal finances.
Still, the lows of 2012 aren't nearly as bad as they were in the previous three years. But the trend is discouraging. It looks like yet another year starting with improved outlooks for the economy that fade by summer, and it's clearly taking a toll on the American people.
Over the past few weeks, President Obama and his campaign team have launched a furious attack on Mitt Romney's record as head of Bain Capital, a highly successful venture capital firm.
There is clear evidence that the attacks have had some impact. Forty-one percent of voters now see Romney's record in the private sector primarily as a reason to vote for him, but an equal number see that record as a reason to vote against the GOP challenger. That negative perception is up 8 points over the past couple of months.
There are plenty of reasons that the economy is the most important issue of Election 2012.
Unemployment has remained high for a long time, and even 27 percent of those who have a job are worried about losing it. Only half of homeowners now believe their home is worth more than what they still owe on it. Just 16 percent believe that today's children will be better off than their parents.
Every summer, millions of Americans enjoy baseball, summer camps and vacation plans. But for the nation's political junkies, every fourth summer is filled with guessing games about the vice presidential nomination.
While the guessing games are fun, it's more accurate to look at the fundamentals facing the candidate and what he hopes to achieve.
The new Federal Reserve report showing that household net worth collapsed between 2007 and 2010 quickly became campaign fodder for both sides.
Republicans seized on the data to claim that the current administration is out of touch. President Obama helped the GOP with his comments that the private sector is doing fine and that small businesses will not be affected by his health care plan.
The Obama campaign's early attempts to attack Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital or present him as too extreme to be president have not worked out all that well so far. The early stumbles have created a flurry of commentaries wondering what's wrong with the team that performed so flawlessly in Election 2008.
The answer may have nothing to do with the Obama campaign and have everything to do with the fact that Romney appears to be a tougher target than anticipated.
President Obama, new French President Francois Hollande and other political leaders have called for less "austerity" as a way to help the troubled economies on both sides of the Atlantic. That's the polite way of saying they want more government spending and larger deficits.
But U.S. voters have a fundamentally different view. Sixty-one percent believe that cutting government spending is what those ailing European economies need. Just 20 percent agree with the political leaders.
Mitt Romney has pulled a point or two ahead of President Obama in polls of likely voters. In polls of registered voters, Obama has the advantage. The president's job approval ratings are hovering in the upper 40 percent range, which suggests a close race.
Looking at this information, partisan activists come to wildly different conclusions about what to expect on Election Day. Democrats tend to believe Obama will be re-elected, while Republicans are more likely to think he will be a one-term president.
When relationships go bad, an early warning sign is that one side doesn't really hear what the other is saying. That's certainly the case today in the relationship between voters and America's political class.
Many in Washington, D.C., took comfort over the past year in polling data showing that fewer voters consider themselves part of the tea party movement. Only 13 percent claim such a tie today, roughly half its peak in 2010. This was reassuring to those in power, suggesting voters were willing to let the politicians return to politics as usual.
One hundred years ago, the European powers were hurtling down a path leading to World War I. Trench warfare became the dominant image of that war, as both sides dug in and the battle lines barely moved. Many called it the "War to End All Wars," but in the end it merely set the stage for World War II.
Election 2012 is shaping up to be the political equivalent of trench warfare that fails to resolve anything.
Just 49 percent of homeowners in America now believe their home is worth more than they paid for it.
Rasmussen Reports has asked that question for years, and it has never before fallen below the 50 percent mark. This represents a sea change in personal finances that challenges core assumptions about the way our economy works.
Any doubt that Mitt Romney would win the Republican presidential nomination vanished when Rick Santorum left the race. It also marked the end of Romney's time as the defining figure in the overall contest for the White House.
The GOP nomination process was seen by many as a competition between Romney and an entertaining cast of I'm Not Mitt Romney challengers. Questions were raised about Romney's perceived weaknesses and whether he could win over the hearts and votes of conservatives. But now President Obama moves to center stage and becomes the defining figure of the general election campaign. Now it's about Obama, not Romney, as the election becomes primarily a referendum on his first term in office.
As Mitt Romney assumes the role of presumptive Republican nominee, polls suggest a competitive general election matchup between the former Massachusetts governor and President Obama. Typically, both candidates poll in the mid-40s, while 10 to 12 percent remain uncommitted to either side.
Among these uncommitted voters, Rasmussen Reports polling shows that just 22 percent approve of the way the president is handling his job. Seventy-two percent (72 percent) disapprove. As for intensity, just 2 percent strongly approve, and 40 percent strongly disapprove.
There's a reason President Obama, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and many others are touting tax reform these days. On the campaign trail, it taps into deeply held beliefs about the way American society ought to work and the role of government.
Seventy-seven percent think it's important to replace the entire federal tax code with something simpler. Seventy-one percent favor a tax code with lower tax rates and very few deductions.
Many Republicans talk of an entitlement mentality that threatens the character and finances of the United States. In their view, the problem is that too many voters feel entitled to goodies provided by the government and financed by taxpayers.
It is true that so-called entitlement programs are growing as a share of the federal budget and the national economy. Along with spending on national defense and interest on the federal debt, spending on entitlement programs consumes the overwhelming majority of the federal budget. But a close look at the data shows that it's not a voter sense of entitlement that is driving the process. Quite the contrary.
Nearly every national political campaign emphasizes the importance of connecting with the middle class. So how come in the 2012 presidential race, none of the candidates are able to make that connection?
A hint may be found in the results of a Rasmussen Reports survey showing that just 27 percent of voters nationwide believe government management of the economy actually helps the economy. Fifty percent think government economic activism does more harm than good.
As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama declared his support for green energy development. "For the sake of our economy, our security and the future of our planet," he said, "we must end the age of oil in our time."
As president, Obama called for putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015. He backed that call with more than $5 billion in taxpayer subsidies to jump-start the electric car industry. The president also put in place a program that gave $7,500 to anyone who would actually buy an electric car. Despite that support, sales were minimal in 2011, so his new budget proposes hiking that subsidy to $10,000 a car.
While much of the focus these days is on the fight for the Republican presidential nomination, there are some developing trends that are likely to have the man already in the White House smiling. Only 29 percent of voters nationwide believe the United States is currently heading in the right direction, while 64 percent believe the nation has gotten off on the wrong track. Those aren't great numbers for a president seeking re-election — but that 29 percent is up from 24 percent a month ago and 16 percent the month before that.
A similar pattern can be found when reviewing the way people view the economy. The raw numbers are bad, but the trend shows improvement. Fifty-seven percent say the country is still in a recession. A majority has held that view consistently for four years. But the number that believes the country is in a recession is down from 61 percent a month ago and 67 percent three months ago.
Newt Gingrich has surged to the lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination with the strong support of evangelical Christian voters. To some, given Gingrich's personal life, this support is puzzling. Whatever else people say about Mitt Romney, his personal life seems above reproach and a good role model for others.
But Gingrich benefits from the fact that when it comes to ethics, voters always grade politicians on a curve. Among Republican primary voters nationwide, 68 percent believe the former House speaker's ethical standards are at least as good as those of most other politicians. Even 51 percent of Romney supporters and 74 percent of Rick Santorum's voters view the ethics of Gingrich as the norm for his peers.
When his tenure at the investment firm Bain Capital became an issue in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney responded by saying he "was disappointed ... to see one of my opponents attacking free enterprise, just like the president was."
It's understandable why Romney would want to see criticism of his resume as an attack on free enterprise. Seventy percent of Americans favor a free market economy over a government-managed economy. Whether in the primaries or the general election, Romney would like to say he believes in free enterprise while the other candidates believe government has a vital role to play in helping every industry and company succeed. Americans overwhelmingly reject that premise and don't want government in the business of picking economic winners and losers.