The campaign’s bedrock belief in the sheer force of economic gravity has hamstrung Romney in multiple ways: Confident in its message, it allowed Democrats to define Romney over the summer as an out-of-touch plutocrat without bothering to respond with ads in key states that would reassure voters about the candidate. And it failed to court two voting blocs—women and Hispanics—whose support is crucial to building a winning coalition in 2012.
The cracks started appearing in the unexpectedly challenging and protracted primary, as Romney took hard-line positions against illegal immigration and abortion to try to outflank his more conservative rivals. He vowed to veto the Dream Act, which would grant legal status to undocumented kids who go to college or serve in the military.
He allowed his campaign to become entangled in a prolonged debate over access to contraception in the spring while also pledging to defund Planned Parenthood, thus signaling that he would fight the party’s age-old culture wars. He should, instead, have been sounding daily alarms on the economy.
As his appeal in the Hispanic community soured and the gender gap widened, Romney’s advisers insisted that the nominee didn’t need to modulate his tone—the high unemployment rates among Hispanics and women would drive those voters away from Obama and into Romney’s arms. It hasn’t happened.
Only recently did Romney begin airing ads overtly appealing to women and talking about bipartisan immigration reform. “He dug himself into a hole on those issues and then tried to avoid them,” says Republican consultant Ana Navarro, who advised John McCain’s 2008 campaign on Hispanic outreach. “Now he dodges and weaves without providing clear answers or concrete proposals, and that becomes an obstacle for Hispanics to trust him.”
Romney’s inner circle remains undeterred amid the electorate’s changing demographics, shifting attitudes about the economy, Democratic-leaning polls, and carping by the GOP establishment.
“One of the things we have learned from the Romney team—like it or hate it, and at times it’s extremely frustrating—they are extremely patient about their strategy,” Republican consultant Reed Galen says. “They are very comfortable that in the end this will be an election based on the economy. You’d have to hit [campaign manager] Matt Rhoades with a baseball bat to get him to move off his plan.”
Some Republicans are openly fretting that Romney can’t reset the race without delivering a series of body blows in the three debates or by rising above a nerve-rattling economic crash in Europe or armed conflict with Iran.
“There are no more weeks to give up,” says Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for McCain’s 2008 campaign against Obama. “This is like a football game in the playoffs. The team with the most turnovers loses. There are no more interceptions to lose. They’ve used them all up.”
Polling experts at Stanford’s conservative-leaning Hoover Institution, including Frisby and the political scientist David Brady, are more blunt. To win, they say, Romney needs a full-scale repeat of the 1980 election, when economic anxieties drove voters en masse toward Reagan in the final days of the race. But the United States is a different country now—and not simply in terms of demographics. The odds of a similar shift happening this year, Frisby and Brady warn, are low. And absent that, Obama will make history one more time, by showing that a basic, once-immutable law of politics is now as unsteady and unreliable as the economy itself.
This article appears in the Sep. 29, 2012, edition of National Journal.