Call me crazy, but I think Mitt Romney has more than an even chance of winning this election against Barack Obama. If he plays things right -- and I'm pretty sure he will -- I think there's a very good possibility a surge of voter sentiment will put him into office.
Start with an analogy. In 1989, New York voters elected Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins as the city's first African-American mayor. Church bells rang, the newspapers sang hosannas, and everyone congratulated themselves on the wonderful act of tolerance that had put the journeyman Democratic politician into office.
Once things settled down, however, Dinkins’ administration proved to be less than inspirational. Like all Democrats everywhere, he had no sense of the value of money. He went on spending as if there were no tomorrow. As it happened, the country was falling into a recession and revenue was drying up. So he and Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo both responded by raising taxes, with the result that one of five jobs lost in the country were in the Empire State. By the end of his term, Dinkins was starting to tinker with one of New York's most sacred covenants -- the informal agreement that keeps property taxes very low for homeowners. With the city overwhelmed with crime, even successful middle class people were headed for the exits.
Then a motorcade of Orthodox Jews accidentally struck and killed a young black boy in Crown Heights. When African Americans rioted, Dinkins refused to send in the police for two days, saying the community should be allowed to "vent its rage." As a result, a gang of black boys vowing to "kill Jews" set upon a young rabbinical student and stabbed him to death. Needless to say, that cost Dinkins the support of much of New York's sizable Jewish population.
In short, after four years New Yorkers were wondering if electing Dinkins had been such a great idea. And so in a city where only 10 percent of the electorate is registered Republican, the people of New York closed their eyes and pulled the lever for a former Republican prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani as mayor. The rest is history. To this day there are die-hard liberals in New York who are reluctant to admit they voted for Giuliani in 1993, but that's why we have a secret ballot. Right up until the election Giuliani trailed in the polls and there was never any broad expectation that he might win. But he did.
And that, I suspect, it pretty much the way things could happen in this election. I wouldn't expect to see Romney piling up any lead in the polls. It's almost better that way. If people start expecting Romney to win they may have second thoughts or start feeling guilty about abandoning Obama. Changing leaders is a very big deal for Americans, especially when it's an incumbent who has only had one term in office. It's not something people want to talk about too much. That's the way things went when President Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan never led in the polls. He was 25 points behind at this point in the campaign and still trailed going into the final week. Only after their first and only debate did the electorate start to swing toward him. The surge came only in the final three days and was never apparent to the public. Only Pad Cadell reading his daily polls saw it coming and grimly told Carter the situation had become hopeless. That's the way it could go this time as well. If people go into the polls still trying to make up their minds, they're very likely to say, "Oh, what the heck, let's give someone else a try."
So what should be the strategy for Romney's campaign? It's simple. Be positive. Obama is going to run a nasty, nasty campaign. What else can he do? He can't run on his record. People know he's been a failure and he probably knows it, too. So what else is there but to run an ugly, ugly campaign trying to brand Romney as "weird," "rich," "selfish," "uncaring," "a Social Darwinist" and whatever else come to mind. It's going to be downhill all the way.
All Romney has to do is ignore it. Don't get into spitting fights and mud-slinging contests with the President. Be above it all. Let Obama stew in his own anger. Romney should be the happy warrior, delighted to be out mixing among the people, learning about their problems, becoming more and more comfortable with the backslapping and glad-handing. He's already improved quite a bit and the press is starting to notice. There will be a drama in watching him become more relaxed on the stump and that will build momentum. People will become absorbed in it.
One more thing that gives Romney a huge advantage. Obama is going to run as a divider. Already his stated objective will be to pick off factions one by one -- women, Latinos, young people -- and convince them that their real problems lie with the people we should all hate -- the rich one percent. It's a tried and true method, practiced by Hugo Chavez and every other tin pot demagogue who came to power by encouraging people to hate the rich.
But if Obama runs as a divider, Romney can run as a uniter. "He can bring us together" is the slogan that always attaches to the winning candidate. It makes people feel comfortable. Setting up some tiny fraction of the population as the enemy of the people may appeal to the most devout of Obama's followers, but it isn't likely to play with the general electorate. I simply do not believe that the majority of Americans will fall for the idea that they can improve their lot by scapegoating a small percent of the population.
The Obama campaign is already too calculated by half. They honestly believe everyone is as political as they are. In fact, a huge portion of the electorate is simply going to vote on the candidate with whom they feel most comfortable. Last week R. Emmett Tyrrell compared Romney to the friendly neighbor next door whom you can always count on if you lock yourself out of your house. That's exactly the kind of image Romney should project. And of course it is very much who he is as well. Like Reagan, he just has to save a few choice barbs for the debate.
There is a nasty side to Obama that is eventually going to come out during this campaign. For him it is all very, very personal. All his life he's had it in for those guys like Romney who seem to fit so effortlessly into the establishment. When he was working for that law firm in Chicago, he wrote that he felt "like a spy behind enemy lines." After winning popular acclaim, it would seem he left all this behind. Yet here he is now, President of the United States, and those same establishment guys are coming around trying to undo all the wonderful work he has accomplished in creating a socially leveled, egalitarian, environmentally pure America.
At some point Obama is going to crack. He is going to do or say something very, very embarrassing that allows people to see beneath the veneer of "hope and change." When that happens, if Romney is still standing, unfazed by all the nastiness, buoyant, optimistic, ready to lead the country in a new direction, people are going to say, "What the heck, let's give this guy a chance."
That's all it will take to win the election.