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The Great Republican Swing-State Dissonance Problem

Neil King, Jr. has a strong piece on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal about a dynamic that I've mentioned in several contexts over the past few weeks but haven't given the full-on focus it deserves: the growing dissonance between what Mitt Romney is telling swing-state voters about the economy and what they are hearing from their Republican governors:

A recent TV spot that ran for weeks in Virginia had all the makings of an ad touting President Barack Obama's re-election effort. "Virginia is growing strong again, and so is our future," gushed the narrator, adding that Virginians were now enjoying "the lowest unemployment rate in over three years."

Far from an Obama campaign plug, the ad was paid for by Republican donors and narrated by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, a potential running mate of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. As Mr. Romney hops among battleground states to highlight U.S. economic woes under Mr. Obama, he keeps knocking against dissonant voices from his own side: Republican governors, such as Mr. McDonnell, touting recent turnarounds in states that Mr. Romney has to win in November.

Mr. Romney's message that the national economy remains sour is central to his core campaign-argument that the president's policies have impeded the recovery, and that someone with deep business experience is better to set the U.S. right. But Republican governors in states that will decide the election, such as Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Iowa, have a rosier view. While Mr. Romney points to a feeble recovery, underscored by last month's grim jobs report, the governors -- looking to their own political fortunes -- cite job growth, higher corporate investment and the rebirth of manufacturing in their state.

This was exactly the dynamic I found in Ohio, where the particularly sharp improvement in the economy has encouraged Democratic leaders even as they concede that it is also going to benefit Republican Gov. John Kasich, who is up for reelection in 2014. Kasich, like McDonnell, seems not all that concerned about complicating Romney's message -- at one event with him near Columbus, he talked up a Web site with 80,000 job openings in Ohio, moments apart from Romney railing against the slow recovery. Shortly prior, Kasich said he had no problem with Obama reaping benefits from the improving Ohio economy: "Bother me? I hope he gets all the credit." As Michael Coleman, the Democratic mayor of Columbus, put it to me: 

“Kasich runs around the state of Ohio taking credit for the improvement in the economy in Ohio. He’s becoming Johnny One-note. And the more you play that note, the more it’s listened to by the people of Ohio. What’s happening is as the economy improves, all Kasich is talking about is jobs, jobs more jobs in the economy, that’s his whole message. Then you have Mitt Romney saying that the economy terrible, when in fact the economy’s getting better. You have Kasich and Obama on the same message. You have Obama saying the economy is getting better and our work is paying off in Ohio and Kasich is saying the same damn thing. Romney is the man out—it’s like a triangle here. It’s going to be an interesting dynamic here. Romney’s saying the economy’s terrible and I’m the business guy and I’m going to create more jobs and I’m going to do this and do that...Kasich’s saying the economy’s getting better, I’ve worked it, it’s happening before our eyes, and people are saying yeah, the economy is getting better, Mitt, what are you talking about? With respect to this triangle, Kasich is Mitt’s frenemy, in the sense that Kasich is endorsing him and wants him to win—but Kasich has the same message as the president.”

When I asked Kasich's office about this dynamic, I got a delightful attempt to spin away the problem from his spokesman: "Ohio is going to be a problem for the administration…after being 48th in job creation over the past 10 years, and after losing 400,000 jobs under the previous Dem governor, we’re now outpacing everyone in the Midwest.  In Feb, we were the #2 job creator in the nation – an outlier of success vs the nation at large.  If Obama’s national policies are responsible for resurgent OH, why aren’t other states doing as well as us? Ohio underperformed the national economy until Gov Kasich got in 2011, and now we’re outperforming it.  How does POTUS take credit for that?"

As I've said before, I'm pretty sure Obama will be glad to see a strong recovery in Ohio without worrying that that will "be a problem" for him.

In King's piece, some Republicans argue that the dissonance could be resolved in Romney were able to more freely acknowledge the improvement in the swing states' economies, while attributing that improvement entirely to the governors, not Obama, as the governors have themselves been trying to do. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it's, well, totally bogus. There's no way to truthfully account for Ohio's comeback without noting the bailout of the auto industry, and there's no way to truthfully account for Virginia's relative prosperity without noting its having  a hugely disproportionate share of the government and government contracting jobs that the right so disparages. (For one thing Virginia benefited greatly from the fact that much of the federal stimulus money was filtered through Northern Virginia contractors such as Booz Allen who were put in charge of spending the money, and took a healthy cut of it for themselves.)

One shouldn't take this dissonance problem too far -- many political scientists will tell you that the state of the national economy will matter more for many voters than will the particulars around them, given the dominance of the national media in setting the tone. But keep an eye on this. If you hear McDonnell or Kasich start talking about how crummy things are going under their leadership, you'll know Mitt got to them.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis