Mitt Romney should quit playing the expectations game. He’s lousy at it.
The game is played against the media and the political establishment, not with dice or cards but with a wink and a nudge. Candidates downplay contests where their chances are slim, and everyone else plays along. Only, Romney’s campaign is terrible at bluffing. “I don’t think anybody expected Mitt to win Alabama or Mississippi,” Romney’s straight-faced spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said on CNN after his candidate came in third in both states. If the campaign was so comfortable with the results, why did it put a surrogate on national television instead of Romney?
Poor bluffing aside, the expectations game doesn’t work for a front-runner in a for-crying-out-loud Republican field. People can’t help but expect Romney—the only candidate who isn’t campaigning on the fly; the only candidate whose résumé, platform, and personal history look like general-election material—to win, no matter what. As Romney’s beleaguered rival, Newt Gingrich, put it on Tuesday night, “If you’re the front-runner and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a front-runner.”
From the start, Romney and his campaign have fallen into a pattern of backing into states where he wasn’t expected to do well, ramping up the effort when it looked like things might break his way, and then downplaying the results when, in the end, things didn’t work out.
Time and again, Romney has acted as if he had the luxury to manage expectations and pick his battles, depending on the size of a state’s delegate bounty and its demographic profile. He said he didn’t have to win Iowa—until polls showed that it was in reach. He didn’t have to win South Carolina—but getting pounded by Gingrich knocked the wind out of him and then put Florida at risk. He didn’t have to take Colorado, Minnesota, or Missouri—except that ceding them handed Santorum a triple play and guaranteed a week of bad headlines. His halfhearted attempts in those states and in this week’s contests make him look weak, indecisive, and uncommanding.
Tennessee was probably Romney’s best bet for a win in the Deep South, a result that would have silenced the doomsayers who say he can’t win in the heart of the Republican Party. Pulling out a victory in ultraconservative Mississippi or Alabama was a longer shot, but wasn’t it a shot worth taking when polls show that the protracted primary is tarnishing Romney’s image and the Republican brand?
Like any good businessman, Romney evaluates the potential return on investment in each state. For a Mormon candidate from Massachusetts, the evangelical South looks like a risky bet. Romney didn’t spend anything on television advertising in Mississippi and little in Alabama, leaving it up to a super PAC bankrolled by his allies to fill the airwaves. He may have saved some money, but the losses mean that he now has to drop more cash in more-expensive states such as Illinois, which holds its primary on Tuesday. “I’ve thought all along that they need to spend irresponsibly early so they would save themselves money and a lot of headaches in the long run,” said consultant Curt Anderson, a former political director of the Republican National Committee.
Which brings us back to the lousy poker face, because while Romney was watching dimes, the pro-Romney Restoring Our Future PAC spent more than $2 million in Alabama and Mississippi attacking Rick Santorum. “For someone who thinks this race is inevitable, he spent a whole lot of money against me for being inevitable,” Santorum gloated on Tuesday night. So, was he in or out?
Despite Romney’s formidable lead in delegates, the aura of inevitability gets a little dimmer with every loss. Romney scoffs that Santorum is at “the desperate end” of his campaign, appearing not to take him seriously—in contrast to the down-ballot candidates fretting about having a crusader against contraception at the top of the ticket. “I’ve been meeting with Republican candidates for Congress and governor, and whether they are conservative or not, none of them want to run with Rick Santorum,” said Anderson, who advised Rick Perry before he quit the race. “They’re not that excited about Mitt either, but he will run a plodding, unimaginative, safe campaign they feel they can survive against a weak president.”
Romney has done a great job racking up endorsements, but that has earned him a limited payoff. All seven Republican statewide elected officials campaigned on his behalf in Mississippi, to no avail. Instead, he needs to rely less on surrogates and attack ads and more on positive ads about his record as a governor and successful business leader. “People are aware he changed his position on abortion and aware of his health care plan in Massachusetts, but that’s all they know,” said Henry Barbour, who represents Mississippi in the RNC. “There’s a story to be told, but I don’t think people in Mississippi heard it.”
Where is that big-picture, affirmative rationale that every campaign needs? In recent weeks, Romney’s message has devolved into an electability argument: I can win, and my opponents can’t. Inspired yet? That isn’t a campaign platform, and it sounds a bit tinny as he keeps losing states. In exit polls, most GOP voters in Mississippi and Alabama said they think Romney is the most likely candidate to defeat the president; many of them still picked someone else.
“Some people acknowledge his greater electability, but others are saying, ‘Electability be damned,’ ” said Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “The Republican base is more ideological than it’s ever been.”
It’s time for Romney to go for broke. Play to win. Forget about managing expectations. “Strange things are happening to me,” Romney said earlier this week, joking about learning to say “y’all” and eating grits. Even stranger things may happen if he doesn’t shut down this nomination battle sometime soon.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.