Mitt Romney could have won. By Tuesday night, it was certain that 48 percent of the country no longer believed in the portrait of hope and change that Barack Obama offered up in 2008—if any ever had. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, the reality had grown somewhat repugnant to vast numbers of voters unhappy with a stagnant economy, even as Obama continued to portray himself as the good-guy savior (from George W. Bush, that is) in the White House.
But in the end, Obama secured a second historic election victory—in the face of staggering unemployment—largely because the alternative portrait that Romney presented to the country was far too incomplete. By failing to fill in critical details that would have fleshed out both his personality and his policies, the Republican challenger gave the American people a mere pencil sketch of a candidate. It wasn’t enough, and it was much too abstract. Too many voters couldn’t figure out which Romney would show up in the Oval Office. Would it be the Massachusetts-moderate redux they saw in the last six weeks of the campaign, or the right-wing ideologue from the Republican primaries who embraced a small-government zealot, Rep. Paul Ryan, as his running mate?
That’s not to underrate the savvy, and very savage, campaign that the Obama team ran, one that ruthlessly exploited all of these Romney weaknesses and cost the GOP candidate critical blocs of female and Hispanic voters who didn’t buy the reality of Moderate Mitt. For all of the fretting about how $5 billion in campaign spending left the nation with something close to the status quo ante—a Democratic president and Senate, a GOP House—perhaps the most successful chunk of advertising money ever spent in modern American political history was the initial $50 million or so the Obama team devoted last spring to defining Romney as an exploitative, job-exporting Wall Street plutocrat.
In a dynamic that played out much like 2004, when Democratic challenger John Kerry failed to respond to the Republicans’ “Swift Boat” attacks, Romney never responded effectively to the fat-cat charges. And he never overcame that image, as a blanket of Obama ads kept up the attack through Nov. 6 in the battleground states. “I think they were very smart in defining him early. The early ads paid off,” says GOP strategist Rick Tyler, who helped Newt Gingrich defeat Romney in the South Carolina primary by portraying him similarly. “I don’t think he ever really recovered.”
The Obama attack successfully neutralized Romney’s main argument that as a businessman and numbers whiz, he was best suited to fix the economy. Postelection polling suggests that even though Romney had slightly higher numbers on economic performance than Obama in some polls, his advantage there was eclipsed by doubts about the soundness of his policies and his evenhandedness. According to pollster John Zogby, while most voters on Tuesday cited the economy as their top issue, as expected, 52 percent said that Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy, while a plurality of 43 percent said that Obama’s policies more greatly benefit the middle class.
In addition, despite Romney’s impressive fundraising record, the Obama campaign was always ahead in organization, especially in maintaining its superb precinct-level ground game from 2008. This produced high turnout in the battleground states, even in the face of economic disillusionment. “It’s very tough to take out an incumbent president,” Tyler says. “Obama’s team just created a firewall in the battleground states.” The Obama campaign’s computer models also appear to have read
the electorate far more accurately than Romney’s did.
The biggest mistakes of the 2012 election campaign were made by Romney himself.
Finally, Romney kept committing unforced errors, and Obama made very few. Romney’s gaffe-strewn tour of Britain and Israel in July; his callous exploitation of Ambassador Chris Stevens’s killing in Benghazi, Libya, on the day of his death (Sept. 11, no less); above all, his mind-boggling videotaped dismissal of “47 percent” of the country as bloodsucking government dependents—it all played into the Obama team’s portrait of him as a clueless, not-ready-for-prime-time player. By the time the Republican nominee regained his footing with a powerful performance in the first debate on Oct. 3 and began to run a fairly smooth campaign, it was too late to overcome an image of incompetence, aloofness, and lack of definition.
All of this best explains how Obama set a postwar political record by getting himself reelected despite a 7.9 percent jobless rate (no president since FDR had done it with the jobless rate above 7.2 percent), favorable ratings barely hovering at 50 percent, and a majority of Americans saying the country was headed in the wrong direction. The president squeaked into a second term by persuading critical pockets of voters in battleground states who appeared to appreciate his efforts on the economy (especially in the industrial Midwest, which was grateful for the auto bailout), and weren’t as bad off as the nation as a whole—such as Virginia, with its 5.9 percent unemployment rate, and Ohio, a big beneficiary of the auto bailout, with a 7.2 percent jobless rate that was well below the national average.
To be fair, the jumbled nature of Romney’s campaign was not entirely his fault. He was also somewhat boxed in by his party. A “small c” conservative who never completely won over the GOP’s restive, tea party-driven base, Romney faced one of the stiffest primary challenges in recent history. As a result, he felt pressured to run to the right of GOP rivals Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich, staking out extreme positions on immigration (when he promised to make life so miserable for those here illegally that they would “self-deport”) and social issues (pledging to eliminate Planned Parenthood and overturn Roe v. Wade) that later fatally cost him those Latino and female votes. Considering the weakness of Romney’s primary opponents, and his considerable advantage in money and organization, his decision to lean so far rightward was almost certainly an error. It made the distance he had to travel to get back to the middle just too great, and he didn’t leave himself enough time, delaying his “Etch A Sketch” shift to the center until the first debate.
Whether the party itself will recognize all of that, and make the doctrinal adjustment toward the middle and a greater inclusiveness that eluded Romney, is another question. (The most astonishing number: 71 percent of Hispanics, many of whom tend to be conservative, voted for Obama, according to exit polls.) Some Republican pundits, of course, are already beginning the process of casting Romney into the outer darkness as a candidate who was always doomed to failure because he wasn’t a true believer, while GOP pragmatists are beginning to reckon with the reality that their party is no longer in touch with the nonwhite coalition that Obama mastered to win. The outcome of that fight will probably be the next big story in American politics.
But, finally, the biggest mistakes of the 2012 election campaign were made by Romney himself. Party politics don’t explain why he refused to produce more than two years of tax returns, or to talk forthrightly about how he made his money at Bain Capital, or to provide any details at all about which tax deductions he would eliminate to close the deficit—based on an economic plan that virtually every economist said would instead explode the debt.
Despite the lack of a clear second-term agenda from Obama, Romney’s campaign also suffered from a dearth of fresh ideas. His $5 trillion tax-cut plan rested on a hoary and largely debunked concept from the Reagan years that tax cuts for “wealth creators” boost the economy. The evidence is that they don’t. Going back to 1945, the Congressional Research Service says, there is no “clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in the top tax rates and economic growth.” CRS concluded: “Analysis of such data suggests the reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth.” Most recently, the giant Bush tax cuts created zero job growth in the “lost decade” of the 2000s, the slowest 10-year growth in the post-World War II period.
Romney also suffered from a credibility gap on many issues—blatantly misrepresenting his opposition to the Obama bailout that saved Detroit in 2009, for example. Indeed, one reason the election was decided surprisingly early on Tuesday night, even though the popular vote was close nationally, was that Romney, the self-described “car guy” who grew up in Michigan, lost key Midwestern industrial states that benefited from Obama’s auto bailout. These included his own native state and Wisconsin, where the jobless rate is only 7.3 percent. Following their near-collapse, the U.S. auto companies have rebounded substantially, adding some 250,000 jobs.
Romney just never found a home in those blue-collar states. Beginning during the GOP primaries, when he awkwardly sought to identify with autoworkers by boasting that his wife “drives a coupla Cadillacs,” Romney was bedeviled not only by his aloof, patrician image but also by his infamous 2008 op-ed headlined “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Candidate Romney sought to argue that he had favored only a “managed bankruptcy” that depended on private financing, not dissolution of the auto industry. But on Tuesday, voters in the Big Three heartland apparently remembered that private credit was not in the offing in those years; only government money was, as Obama argued.
Despite the lack of a clear second-term agenda from Obama, Romney’s campaign also suffered from a dearth of fresh ideas.
The Republican made yet another serious misstep in the final days of the election, when his campaign aired a series of flagrantly false ads about the auto bailout suggesting that General Motors and Chrysler were sending jobs to China at the expense of U.S. workers. The ads provoked embarrassing rebuttals from executives of both companies.
That aside, Romney was a very effective campaigner in the final six weeks, even taking the lead in some national polls. Yet his lurch to the middle was so dramatic that his perennial problem of definition came back to haunt him. In the final debate, on foreign policy, after 18 months of ultra-hawkish rhetoric, Romney suddenly began making a case for restraint (typically vague) that was all too Obama-like, saying he would steer clear of military involvement in hot spots such as Iran and Syria. Again and again, Romney retreated from hard lines he had drawn during the GOP primaries. He even appeared to endorse Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, saying, “The surge has been successful,” and, “We’re going to be finished by 2014.” But in making this strategic shift, Romney rendered almost moot any serious differences he might have with Obama over foreign policy. And that raised the question: Why replace the man in the Oval Office?
In the final days, Obama was also helped by chance and Mother Nature. The “October Surprise” of this campaign was delivered up by Hurricane Sandy, which helped Obama look very presidential and remarkably bipartisan in the closing days. With New Jersey taking the brunt of the storm, Americans were treated to the remarkable spectacle of Gov. Chris Christie, the keynote speaker at the Republican convention and one of Obama’s fiercest critics, embracing and thanking the president in effusive terms.
The so-called superstorm also dramatically resurrected the campaign’s buried issue of climate change and reminded voters of Romney’s smug mockery in his convention acceptance speech of Obama as the president who “promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” Given the role that the rise of the oceans appeared to have played in Sandy’s devastating impact, even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican and no fan of Obama’s, publicly abandoned Romney after that.
In the end, however, the most compelling argument in the president’s favor was that neither his opponent’s personal profile nor his campaign promises added up to a compelling picture. Despite a powerful performance in the first debate that reassured many people—and produced a huge surge for him in the polls—it came far too late for Romney to lay to rest a legion of doubts about his character and views.
This article appeared in print as "He Blew It."
This article appears in the Nov. 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.