In “Wrong Track Romney” Mr. Blow says current polls don’t look so good for the Republican presidential candidate. While they may not be predictive, they reveal some high hurdles in Mitt Romney’s path. Mr. Nocera, in “Down With Shareholder Value,” explains how a company’s stock price became the be-all-end-all in the modern-day corporate culture. Ms. Collins has a question in “Become a Star Tracker:” Ever think of going into politics without having to run for office? Nothing is really happening, after all, unless the opposition has it on tape! Here’s Mr. Blow:
Putting too much stock in presidential polls before the party conventions can be tricky. They are meaningful because they offer a snapshot of the state of play at the moment, but they are hardly predictive because many voters don’t truly engage until the election draws nearer.
That said, a series of recent polls paints a worrisome picture for Mitt Romney in the run-up to his party’s national convention. Three polls — from CNN/ORC, Fox News and Reuters/Ipsos — were released this week. President Obama’s lead over Romney ranged from 7 points to 9 points.
The Fox News poll showed Obama with his highest level of support this year.
So what gives? Is this real? Is it a fluke?
It’s hard to say, but there are some theories.
Romney spends so much time hiding, dodging and trying to say nothing specific that when he does show up — and speak up — he bungles it. Dealing with the details is a skill that must be practiced on the campaign trail. Romney seemed to think that he could run out the clock, coast on electoral contempt for Obama, and sneak into the White House. Wrong! So the more his campaign speaks and is pressed, the more it slips up. To wit, he recently had a disastrous overseas trip, starting fires of controversy wherever the wheels of his plane touched the tarmac.
The Obama campaign and its supporters have been incredibly aggressive, vicious even, in going after Romney and trying to define him as out of touch and elitist. Many attacks have been fair — others not so — but they may be beginning to stick. According to a recent report in The New York Times, “President Obama has spent more campaign cash more quickly than any incumbent in recent history.”
The Obama campaign seems to be gambling that if it defines Romney early in the minds of voters, no amount of late spending by Romney and the massive “super PACs” that support him will be able to undo it. The theory is simple really: It’s impossible to separate the soda from the sugar when it’s already baked into the cake. This is not at all unlike what Karl Rove and George W. Bush did to John Kerry in 2004, and it worked. Of course, that Obama and his advisers would parrot Bush and Rove is a delicious irony. (It should be pointed out that at this point in the 2004 campaign, Kerry’s favorability rating was actually higher than Bush’s, and he still lost. Romney’s favorability has never been higher than Obama’s and recently has been moving in a downward direction.)
The electorate is suffering a crippling crisis of confidence in the candidate. When Fox News asked respondents: “Regardless of how you would vote, how comfortable would you be with Mitt Romney as president?” only 26 percent said extremely or very comfortable. Seventy-one percent of those polled said that they would be only somewhat comfortable or not comfortable at all. When asked to give the main reason for their discomfort, the No. 1 reason was his position on issues, but reasons No. 2 and 3 were that he’s phony or dishonest and he’s out of touch. By comparison, 41 percent of respondents said that they would be extremely or very comfortable with Obama as president for four more years. Being phony or dishonest appears eighth on the list of reasons people gave for saying they were not comfortable or only somewhat comfortable with Obama, and being out of touch didn’t even register. Furthermore, when CNN asked respondents, regardless of whom they supported, who they thought would win in November, they favored Obama over Romney by nearly two to one.
Romney is one of the worst presidential candidates in recent memory. He is stiff and awkward and inconsistent and struggles to connect with people. His track record is all over the place. And he’s willing to say anything and embrace anyone to further his ambitions, which is as distasteful a character trait as they come. If you are straightforward with folks, they may disagree with you but most will at least respect you. I’m not sure that Romney ever learned that lesson. His “by any means necessary” approach is by all measures repugnant.
Now things are by no means settled. To the contrary, they are just about to heat up. Republicans have boatloads of money and a burning desire to unseat this president. They also have a host of voter suppression laws working in their favor, many in battleground states. And a growing sense of comfort among Democrats could lead to a loss of energy and lower turnouts.
But voters’ discomfort with Romney and his own side’s lack of faith in him will be high hurdles to clear come November.
To say nothing of the possible prospect of having the Zombie-Eyed Granny Starver as the veep candidate… Here’s Mr. Nocera:
I’ve been known to say that I was present at the creation of “shareholder value.”
It’s an exaggeration, of course. But in 1982 — literally half a lifetime ago for me — I wrote an article about the first big takeover attempt by T. Boone Pickens. One of his central justifications for the takeover movement that he helped spawn was that company managements didn’t care enough about the company’s owners, a k a the shareholders. Their cash-based compensation wasn’t properly aligned with the desires of shareholders. Shareholders, he believed, need to assert their primacy — and force executives to start paying attention to the price of their companies’ stock. I later learned that Pickens was not the first person to make this argument — academics had already created the theory that undergirds it. But, at the time, it was still a pretty radical view.
As the expression goes, be careful what you wish for. Shareholder value has long since become the mantra of the business culture. Corporate boards shower executives with stock options to “align” them with shareholders. “Underperforming” companies find themselves under siege from activist investors. Increasing shareholder involvement is viewed as the way to fix whatever ails corporate governance. Over time, “maximizing shareholder value” became viewed as the primary task of the corporation.
And, well, you can see the results all around you. They’re not pretty. Too many chief executives succumb to the pressure to boost short-term earnings at the expense of long-term value creation. After all, their compensation depends on it. In the lead-up to the financial crisis — to take just one extreme example — financial institutions took on far too much risk in search of easy profits that would lead to a higher stock price.
Now, though, it feels as if we are at the dawn of a new movement — one aimed at overturning the hegemony of shareholder value. Lynn Stout, a Cornell University law professor, has written a new book, “The Shareholder Value Myth,” in which she argues that there is nothing in the law that supports the idea that shareholders should be the only constituency that matters. Other academics, such as Roger Martin, the highly regarded dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, are critical of the emphasis on shareholder value. A number of chief executives, such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks, have said that companies need to have a larger purpose than merely raising the stock price.
And, most recently, in the Harvard Business Review, Jay W. Lorsch, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Justin Fox, the editorial director of the HBR Group (and a former colleague of mine at Fortune), published an article entitled, “What Good Are Shareholders?” Not much, is their answer.
One of their arguments is that the calls for increased shareholder democracy are misguided; shareholders, they write, simply aren’t particularly well-suited to be “corporate bosses.” They are too diffuse, and too short-term-oriented, especially now that high-frequency trading dominates the market. Indeed, despite the increased emphasis on shareholders the past few decades, companies haven’t gotten noticeably better.
A second argument, though, is that the central idea that led us to elevate shareholders above all others is off-base. According to the reigning academic theory, shareholders are “principals” and management serves as their “agent.” Thus, it is the job of the principals to keep the agents in line. But, said Fox, “The more you treat executives that way, the more they are going to act like mercenaries, and the more they get away from seeing themselves as stewards of an organization with lasting value.”
“Look at almost any company that has lasted,” he continued. “It is inevitably because executives see themselves as trying to move the organization forward, and not because they are incented by their pay package to maximize the share price.”
Lorsch, for his part, says that he believes that “the function of business in a society is not just a return to investors, but to provide goods and services, provide employment, pay taxes, and so on.” A half-dozen other business school professors I spoke to held similar views. To the extent this new movement is taking root, it is in business schools.
Still, it is hard to know yet whether this new movement will have legs. Measuring chief executives on the basis of their companies’ stock prices is easy to understand — that was always part of its appeal. Those who want to change that, including Lorsch and Fox, have struggled to come up with breakthrough ideas that would be similarly appealing. Besides, shareholder value is so deeply entrenched, it will be difficult to dislodge.
On the other hand, the other day, Marissa Mayer, the new chief executive at Yahoo, ordered that the stock ticker be removed from the company’s internal home page. “I want you thinking about users,” she told employees, according to The Wall Street Journal.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
If you are an unemployed young American, right now you are probably asking yourself: what are the job opportunities of the future? Opportunities more remunerative than unpaid internships and more accessible than, say, synchronized swimming?
Consider a career as a political tracker.
The trackers are the people hired to follow around a candidate’s opponent and record every single thing he says or does. Maybe he’ll get tired and admit to an audience that he forged his college diploma or that he’s wanted for cattle rustling in Wyoming. Probably not. But it is possible that he’ll casually tell a questioner that he prays the media will stop covering “sob stories” about how someone “couldn’t get, you know, their food stamps or this or that.” Which did actually happen the other day in Wisconsin.
So no campaign should be without an opposition tracker. Honestly, if a candidate for the U.S. Senate is not being constantly trailed by some earnest young person with an HD camera, it means that she is so hopelessly behind in the polls that nobody cares if she crashes her car into an Adopt-a-Pet van. It’s sort of insulting. I’ll bet there are borderline candidates out there who hire someone to pose as a tracker just so people will think they’re being taken seriously.
You may be wondering about job requirements. Chris Harris, the spokesman for American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic research organization that employs 18 trackers, says they need to be “part cinematographer and part political operative” as well as “generally versed in policy and history.”
However, the most critical qualification for a tracker is to know what the trackee looks like. This came up recently in Indiana when a man who was hired to track Representative Joe Donnelly, the Democratic Senate candidate, mistakenly wound up tailing a criminal court judge named Jose Salinas, who believed that he was being stalked by an aggrieved former defendant and went to the police.
Also, trackers should be careful not to ask the person they’re trailing for medical help. In Arizona, a man who was filming the every move of the Democratic Senate candidate Richard Carmona mentioned that he had a strange bump on his leg and Carmona, who used to be the U.S. surgeon general, diagnosed a possible hematoma. The examination was filmed by the Carmona campaign, which, of course, had trackers tracking the trackers.
You do not need this sort of basic operation on the presidential level because every single word any candidate says is instantly recorded by hundreds of cameras and cellphones and magic little boxes that no one over the age of 23 knows about, but which, I understand, can take images and turn them into robot holograms capable of doing basic household chores.
So the presidential campaigns have to go the extra mile. Right now Mitt Romney is off on a four-day bus tour, and the Obama forces are following the same route in a bus full of Massachusetts state legislators from the Mitt era, called “Romney Economics: The Middle Class Under the Bus.” (Everything about the Romney campaign seems somehow connected to transit: buses, horses, car elevators, dogs strapped to the car roof.)
“We’re going ahead of his route,” said Brad Woodhouse, the communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “We don’t want to directly confront him. We don’t honk horns and act childish like his campaign does.”
Tracking first became a glamour career in 2006, when Senator George Allen of Virginia saw one in the crowd, announced he wanted a campaign of “positive, constructive ideas” and then jovially and repeatedly referred to a young Indian-American who was filming him as “macaca.” It pretty much undid Allen’s campaign, and he lost his re-election race. Although he’s running again now.
Nobody ever goes away in this business, people. Eliot Spitzer has a new cable TV show. John McCain is still in the Senate. Just when you thought you’d gotten them out, they’re back in again.
There was a time when recording a candidate’s every motion would have been regarded as impolite. In the 19th century, when reporters first started showing up on the campaign trail, politicians would refuse to give their stump speech because there was a person in the crowd who was trying to write down the exact words. Totally unfair.
But that was long ago, when a good political campaign involved rousing, three-hour speeches and people rolling huge balls from town to town to demonstrate their partisan commitment, and torchlight parades and drunken attacks on your opponent’s parades and balls. Nobody even knew what the candidates looked like. And voter participation was nearly twice as high as it is now that we’ve had the opportunity to see absolutely everything that goes on.