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Sagging Dems In Need Of a Clintonian Pivot

With his poll numbers worsening, the president needs to appeal to swing voters and independents.

Democrats will have to win over swing voters and ­independents after their convention in Charlotte, N.C., this week if they hope to win in November. It’s these voters—not the dyed-in-the wool supporters assembled in Charlotte—who win elections.

The party’s job won’t be easy. Since the Aug. 11 announcement that Rep. Paul Ryan would be ­joining the GOP ticket, Mitt Romney’s position vis-à-vis President Obama has risen steadily in the polls. On Aug. 9, Mr. Obama’s lead in the RealClearPolitics average of available polling data was 4.5 points. That lead has since dropped by more than four points. As of Monday, the two candidates were tied at 46.4%.

Swing voters in key battleground states have also moved in the direction of the Romney-Ryan ticket. According to the most recent Public Policy Polling (PPP), Mr. Romney now holds a 12-point lead over Mr. Obama in Missouri (53%-41%), and an Elon University/Charlotte Observer poll shows the Republican with a three-point lead (47%-43%) in North Carolina.

President Obama now leads by just one point in the latest PPP Florida poll (48%-47%)—down from a four-point lead (50%-46%) in an Aug. 22-26 CNN poll. The most recent PPP polling in Iowa has Mr. Romney trailing Mr. Obama by just two percentage points (47%-45%), a marked ­improvement from PPP polling earlier this year, when Mr. Romney trailed the president by 10 points in May and five in July.

Meanwhile, 55% of independents—who voted for Mr. Obama over John McCain 52%-44% in 2008—disapprove of the president’s job performance, according to the latest Fox News poll.

In the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, the Romney-Ryan ticket leads on key economic issues. Romney, crucially, has a seven-point lead among ­registered voters when asked who they trust more to handle the economy, 50%-43%. On the deficit his lead is 51%-38%; on taxes, 48%-43%; and on Medicare, 45%-42%.

What voters are looking for—and particularly what swing ­voters, independents, and disillusioned Obama voters are looking for—is a new direction for America based on fiscal discipline, a balanced budget, and economic growth and leadership.

More than anyone else in this race, Paul Ryan has spoken of the need for fiscal discipline and economic growth—two themes that have been largely absent from the Obama-Biden campaign—which explains a large part of the Ryan-inspired Romney bump.

For his part, President Obama needs to change direction—immediately and decisively. His campaign strategy has been to ­divide the country on the basis of class, demonize the wealthy, call for higher taxes and unceasingly attack Mr. Romney. Yet poll after poll has shown that while voters embrace the idea of higher taxes on the rich, it does not translate into votes.

In 2008, Mr. Obama promised to help unite America in a “post-partisan” Washington. But the 2012 campaign has been one of the most negative in memory. What he needs to do is acknowledge that he’s made mistakes and that he wants to pursue a substantive approach to governance. Put another way, he needs to bring back “hope and change” and abandon his divide-and-conquer strategy.

It has been said before, but only because it’s so true: Mr. Obama should follow the lead of President Bill Clinton, who ­emphasized in both his terms in office the need for unity and consensus to achieve fiscal restraint. Inviting Mr. Clinton to speak at the convention Wednesday night is a sure sign that the Obama campaign understands the need to move to the center, if not in substance then in style.

Yet nothing would appeal to ­independents and swing voters more than if the president were to embrace the findings of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission and make it clear that he too has a plan to revitalize the U.S. economy, reduce the deficit, reform entitlements and spur economic growth through a fairer and leaner tax system.

But there is a danger here. By deputizing Mr. Clinton to speak on its behalf, the Obama campaign runs the risk of ­underscoring just how different a leader he is. Indeed, the 25-point gap between Mr. Clinton’s ­favorability rating (66% in a July 30 Gallup poll) and Mr. Obama’s (41% in an Aug. 22-26 CBS News poll) speaks volumes not only about personality and leadership but also about the two men’s ­approaches to governance.

The only way Mr. Obama can capitalize on Mr. Clinton’s ­endorsement is if he channels President Clinton and outlines a balanced-budget plan of his own that speaks directly about the need to reduce spending and to introduce entitlement reform in a humane and rational way. That would appeal to swing voters, and maybe just win the election.

Mr. Caddell served as a pollster for President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Schoen, who served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton, is author of “Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What It Means for 2012 and ­Beyond” ­(Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).
A version of this article appeared September 4, 2012, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Campaign in Need of a Clintonian Pivot.