ELECTION 2012: POSTMORTEM

Mitt Romney Had Every Chance to Win — But He Blew It

With plenty of paths to victory, Romney simply didn’t give voters enough of a reason to support him over Obama.

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrives to his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)  
National Journal
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Michael Hirsh
Nov. 8, 2012, 10 a.m.

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.

HELD CAP­TIVE

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.

MID­WEST­ERN BLUES

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.”

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