Has Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch moment finally arrived?
It was five long months ago when one of the Republican candidate’s top strategists, Eric Fehrnstrom, glibly compared the transition between the primary and general elections to using the children’s toy. “You hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” he said.
If only that were true. Romney can’t wipe away the torrent of attack ads from President Obama and his allies—along with some self-imposed blunders about being a rich guy—that have made him the least popular nominee heading into a convention since 1988, according to the Pew Research Center. He is trailing the president among women and is way behind among Hispanics in must-win states. Even in the worst preelection economy in decades, Romney has failed to frame the race as promised—as a referendum on the president’s stewardship.
There are no do-overs in politics.
But second, third, and even fourth acts are not uncommon, especially in this constantly churning digital age. Romney’s team believes that his new running mate, Paul Ryan, has injected his campaign with vigor and purpose. After weeks of fending off unsavory allegations about his business practices and personal finances, Romney is playing offense, trying to force the president to defend his health care overhaul, welfare policy, and aggressive campaign tactics.
“This [Republican] convention looms very large, larger than most, because it has to establish a lasting theme that will allow us to go on the offensive for the next 60 days of the campaign,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “We have to keep hitting hard.”
Democrats have always wanted to make this race a choice between two competing visions of government. When Romney partnered with a nervy conservative clamoring to gut the executive branch, he made the choice even clearer. The accolades that Romney’s team showers on the Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Budget Committee—“bold,” “visionary,” “optimistic”—implicitly concede the weaknesses at the top of the ticket as well as the challenges ahead. There’s little doubt that Ryan’s addition has helped solidify Romney’s own amorphous political identity.
“It’s a bigger election than it was,” said former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., who advises the campaign. “Sure, it plays into what Democrats thought was the better scenario and where they’d rather be than a referendum on Obama and the economy. But there are lots of Republicans who believe we can win an ideological battle over the size and scope of government in this center-right nation. Now it’s time for us to suit up, get on the field, and win the argument.”
To do so, the ticket will first have to persuade voters that Ryan’s controversial overhaul of Medicare is less of a threat than Obama’s health care law—and then move back to a broader discussion about the economy. Otherwise, it will be tough for the GOP to stay on the offensive.
CHARTING A WIN
Getting down to brass tacks, Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, has come up with a half-dozen paths to reaching the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Almost every scenario depends on Romney’s winning Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia—all states that Obama took in 2008. (North Carolina delivered the narrowest win—fewer than 15,000 votes.)
There’s “W’s Way West Lite,” a riff on former President George W. Bush’s route to the White House, which emphasizes Nevada. “Granite/Hawkeye states” reaches New Hampshire and Iowa. “Rust Belt” takes in Michigan (Romney’s birth state), Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin (Ryan’s home state). The “Southwest” path goes through Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada and leaves out Virginia. “Midwest” includes Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
Then there’s the “Interstate 80 path,” which runs through Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada. And, curiously, “Maine 1,” which emphasizes winning the 1st Congressional District in a Democratic-leaning state where candidates can split the electoral votes, along with taking Colorado and Nevada.
The path Romney chooses will largely hinge on demographics. To build a winning coalition, he needs to extend his lead over Obama among white men, particularly blue-collar workers who are increasingly turning away from the president. He also needs to widen his appeal among women. And although Romney doesn’t need to win the Hispanic vote, a terrible showing could put pivotal states such as Colorado, Florida, and Nevada out of reach. To his credit, Romney has kept the overall race tight despite being significantly outspent; he has consistently presented himself as a steady economic hand in the face of incessant attacks over his wealth. Super PAC spending helped Romney stay competitive but hasn’t insulated the Republican nominee from some significant wear and tear. Looking at the same polls, Democrats tend to focus on Obama’s more favorable image; Republicans point to the neck-and-neck horse race.
“He’s in a dead heat with an incumbent who won his last race by 7 points, and he’s managed to do that in the face of an overwhelming assault,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who does not work for the Romney campaign. “The president’s forces tried to make Romney an unacceptable alternative, but they have not succeeded. It’s bruised him a bit but not disqualified him.”
Flush with postconvention, general-election cash, Romney is expected to outgun Obama into November. The souped-up television advertising will allow the GOP nominee to buff his image and chip away at the more-favorable views of the president, according to his team. How do you siphon goodwill from a sitting president widely believed to have inherited a mess? Hammer him for running a negative, petty campaign at the expense of the big issues of the day—most important, the economy.
“We are still in the process of defining ourselves, and that’s the challenge of running against an incumbent president,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. “But he’s brought the campaign to a new low that has really hurt his brand, and coupled with the dismal economy, he’s the one at risk.”
Three weeks before the Ryan pick, one of Romney’s top advisers, Beth Myers, spent a weekend watching all three of Obama’s debates against his Republican challenger in 2008, John McCain. Back then, Obama was the fresher-faced senator who wrapped himself in hope and change, who represented a new breed of bipartisanship and yoked McCain to the unpopular Bush administration. Now, to the Romney campaign, Obama is just another mudslinging politician who has to answer for broken promises, while Romney and Ryan try to claim the mantle of change.
“Obama is a different actor in the play now,” Myers said. “The dynamic around him and the debates will be different.”
Romney’s campaign also believes that Obama handed them a potent weapon when he suggested last month that successful business owners “didn’t build that” on their own. The president’s clumsy explanation of the supporting role of community and government, along with an earlier comment that “the private sector is doing fine,” feeds into the Republican argument that the administration is essentially hostile to the free-enterprise system and inept at boosting employment.
That’s the playing field the GOP campaign seeks—not the daily grind over Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of tax returns or the profits he made at the helm of Bain Capital while some companies the investment firm took over went bust.
“The American people don’t care about Mitt Romney’s taxes. They care about their own,” said another top campaign messenger, Gail Gitcho. “They don’t care about Mitt Romney’s job; they care about their own.”
RIVERS TO CROSS
That sounds reasonable, but it’s unclear how the Romney campaign helps voters make the leap from Ryan’s Medicare overhaul, now getting most of the attention, to the holy grail of job creation. And even if Republicans get the debate they want over the economy, Democrats argue that Romney’s public image has suffered lasting damage.
Polls show that many voters perceive Romney as disconnected from the middle class and its struggles. That was exactly the intent of the television ads from the pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, featuring weary workers who lost their jobs after Bain takeovers. Spots from the Obama campaign have sought to tar Romney as a Swiss-banking, offshore-sheltering, tax-return-hiding scofflaw who would zealously guard loopholes for wealthy people like himself. And Romney may not have helped matters this month when he said he had paid taxes at a lower rate than most Americans in the last decade.
“We have one mission: to define Romney as unacceptable to the middle class,” said Democratic consultant Paul Begala, who works with Priorities and helped elect Bill Clinton. “If we run one positive ad, I’ll be disappointed.”
He added, “We are laying in a definition of Romney so voters don’t approach him as a blank slate. They approach him as the guy who laid a bunch of people off. It has penetrated.”
Even one of Romney’s top strategists conceded, “There is a distance on values and a sense that Mitt doesn’t connect and he’s not one of us; that he’s been too rich for too long. It’s a challenge.”
But it’s far from an impossible one, in the Romney campaign’s view. It will use high-profile events such as the convention and the debates to showcase Romney as a devout family man, business dynamo, and effective governor. In the race’s homestretch, Republicans wager that Obama’s campaign account will be drained of cash while Romney’s profile and spending will be rising. Voters will focus on his record of decision-making and leadership and welcome a serious debate on the economy, Romney’s staffers say, and dismiss the “distractions and shiny objects” waved by the Obama campaign.
“The campaign will need to put meat on the bone and paint a vivid alternative vision for the country and the economy, which by definition will contrast Romney from Obama’s record and approach,” Ayres said. “The assault from the Obama forces is not going to stop. This is a president who cannot run on his own record and his own achievements.”
Seizing that kind of momentum, however, may require the campaign to do things differently. It has yet to air an ad in which Romney is speaking directly to the camera, up close and personal. The campaign also needs to figure out where Ryan fits in so that his audacious budget plan and energetic stump speeches don’t overshadow the more reserved presidential nominee.
“Romney is on the top of the ticket, and Ryan’s job is to support him and his policies,” said Washington lobbyist Charlie Black, another outside campaign adviser. “What Romney did do is pick someone who could help him govern and help him sell his ideas. After the convention, you’re not going to see Ryan as much—no disrespect, but that’s the way it works with the focus on the two nominees.”
Research by the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, which has been surveying 1,000 people a week since January, hints at Romney’s challenges. The nonpartisan group of more than a dozen universities analyzed a large sample of 10,000 respondents after Romney became the presumptive nominee. Only 5 percent are undecided. According to the research, these voters are less informed about politics and more likely to call themselves moderates.
However, only three in 10 were true independents who denied leaning toward either party, the researchers found. About 40 percent said they were Democrats or leaned Democratic, while 23 percent identified more with Republicans.
Undecided Democrats were not overly enthusiastic about the president, but 65 percent said they “somewhat disapprove” or weren’t sure, suggesting they could be persuaded. Among the undecided Republicans, 35 percent said they dislike Romney personally. Only 1 percent liked him a lot. Nearly two-thirds said that Romney “says what he thinks people want to hear.”
“You don’t get to shake the Etch A Sketch,” said Lynn Vavrek, the project’s coprincipal investigator and a University of California (Los Angeles) associate professor of political science and communication studies. “You only get one chance to introduce yourself. Romney needs to find that really authentic moment sometime between now and November.”
Major Garrett contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the August 25, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.