Except for the occasional tie, by definition one presidential contender always trails the other in mid-September. At that point, in a reliable rite of autumn, the lagging candidate is inevitably subjected to media stories documenting disarray in his team and despair in his party.
Politico fulfilled that venerable tradition this week with a detailed account of the slipshod decision-making that produced Mitt Romney’s instantly forgettable acceptance speech (although a presumably more orderly process didn’t yield an address any more memorable from President Obama). Adding to Boston’s headaches, this revelation of private strain came amid a swarm of public trials, from widespread criticism of Romney’s response to the violence in the Middle East to the furor over his secretly recorded remarks about dependency on the government.
But if Romney loses in November, the primary cause won’t be the tactical missteps and backbiting that Politico chronicled, or even the past two weeks’ rapid-fire controversies. The much larger problem will be fundamental strategic choices the candidate made during the Republican primary, including several that placed him in conflict with long-term demographic trends reshaping the electorate.
Romney’s biggest general-election problem is that he did not believe he could beat a GOP primary field with no competitor more formidable than Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich without tacking sharply right on key issues. Romney repeatedly took policy positions that minimized his risks during the spring but have multiplied his challenges in the fall. His fate isn’t sealed, but the choices he made in the primaries have left him with a path to victory so narrow that it might daunt Indiana Jones. “To secure the nomination, they made … decisions about immigration, tax cuts, and a whole host of other issues that had no strategic vision,” said John Weaver, a senior strategist for John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “So he’s now trapped demographically and doesn’t even seem to understand it.”
Of all Romney’s primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona’s immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would “self-deport.” Although Romney this week tried to soften his tone, polls show Obama attracting at least the 67 percent of Latinos that he attracted in 2008, despite Hispanics’ double-digit unemployment. Weaver, like other GOP strategists, worries that Romney has placed the GOP “on the precipice” of losing Hispanics for a generation.
Romney’s inability to dent Obama’s support among Hispanics (or other minorities) means the GOP nominee probably can’t win without attracting at least 61 percent of white voters. Yet a second early decision has greatly compounded that challenge. Through the primaries, Romney embraced an unreservedly conservative social agenda (such as defunding Planned Parenthood and allowing employers to deny contraception coverage in health insurance plans), especially after Santorum emerged as his principal rival. That positioning helps explain why polls consistently show Obama drawing a majority of college-educated white women—not only the most socially liberal sector of the white electorate but also the fastest-growing. If Obama can hold a majority of those women and match his 80 percent with all minorities in 2008, Romney would have to carry two-thirds of all other whites to win—as much as Ronald Reagan won among those remaining voters in his 1984 landslide.
Two other earlier choices also loom over Romney’s hopes now. His decision, when the nomination was almost sealed, to embrace a 20 percent cut in marginal tax rates has provided Obama’s team invaluable ammunition to paint him as favoring the rich over the middle class. Romney also fatefully dismissed criticism from other Republicans about his experience at Bain Capital as an attack on free enterprise rather than develop a more specific response to the allegations about his business record. That worked with ideologically sympathetic GOP primary voters, but left Romney astonishingly unprepared to persuade the broader electorate when Obama’s team redoubled that critique with biting ads.
Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic advocacy group NDN, says that the common theme in Romney’s primary-period choices was overconfidence that economic dissatisfaction would doom Obama and underestimation of the president’s campaign skills. “That contributed to a sense that they could say whatever they wanted to in the primaries and then Etch A Sketch it in the general,” he said.
But Romney’s decisions during the primaries also reflected a conspicuous lack of confidence that he could impose his will on his party. Instead, he serially accommodated himself to the cresting demands of a GOP base that emerged from the 2010 election excessively confident that the country was ready for the most conservative agenda since at least Reagan in 1980. If Obama wins a second term despite all his vulnerabilities, that ideological hubris will loom larger than any of Romney’s flubs and stumbles now.
This article appeared in the Saturday, September 22, 2012 edition of National Journal.