Since I wrote this little blog post the other day, picked up at Real Clear Politics, all of a sudden (by coincidence; I’m not claiming I had anything to do with it, but just am remarking on how rapidly the ‘meme’ has taken off) all sorts of people are suddenly realizing that Mitt Romney is hardly the candidate with the best chance to beat Barack Obama.
It certainly isn’t all at the Center for Individual Freedom, but we did have a written colloquy on the subject the other day, with Troy Senik and Ashton Ellis insightfully joining me in weighing in. Actually, Jonathan Last made the case earlier, here. Tina Korbe, a rising star, argues the same thing at Hot Air. Phil Klein at the Washington Examiner makes the case that Romney’s flip-flopping is a big liability in a general election (as it was for Al Gore and to a certain extent John Kerry). Back in late December, John Hawkins at Right Wing News also argued the situation quite well. Of course, Peter Ferrara made the case right here at the Spectator, although he also segued into (strong) arguments against Romney’s ability to do a good job if he were elected anyway. William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection also has questions.
The scholarly take on it, again doubting Romney’s electability, was by Larry Lindsey at the Weekly Standard. From the center-left, the very smart former U.S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) thinks his (former) party doesn’t have much to worry about from Romney: “The fact, however, is that Democrats have not had to strain to plan the race they would run against Romney. For four days in the week, they will paint him as a flip-flopper who has occupied both sides of a lot of ground; for three days, as an entitled tool of corporate interests who made millions doling out pink slips on behalf of a shadowy management firm.” Also at NRO, Andy McCarthy doubts whether we can know who is more electable.
At the New York Post, John Podhoretz writes a piece about Romney headlined “Never Has a Winner Looked so Beaten.” The column is brutal. It calls Romney “one of the weakest major candidates either party has ever seen.” Also: “[N]obody loves him. No one is inspired by him.… Claiming he should be president because he knows how to run a business may be the least stirring message any candidate has seized upon since Michael Dukakis foundered in 1988 by claiming he could bring ‘competence’ to the White House. And his liabilities are undeniable. Even though Gingrich’s assault on Romney’s record of laying off workers when he was running Bain Capital is breathtaking in its disingenuousness, that record does happen to be one of a dozen glaring weaknesses in Romney’s biography, political history and approach that President Obama and his team will be able to use to their advantage.” And Jonah Goldberg writes that Romney’s “authentic inauthenticity problem isn’t going away.”
Plenty other similar pieces are out there, all in a rush. And they are all correct.
I try to look at these things from three perspectives based in my own experience. [MUCH MORE]I’ve been a political activist/political professional/presidential campaign state executive director/presidential caucus organizer/leadership Hill staffer, so I have a participant’s perspective. I’ve been a PR executive, so I then try to look at it from a marketing perspective. And I’ve been a journalist/columnist for 15 years, so there’s the close observer/outsider perspective. (This is not to boast about my background, but only to explain HOW I arrive at looking at things, from different angles, as a way to check my assumptions — althought I do have a long record of getting it right.)
Anyway, here’s what I see. I see, first, a candidate who “fails to inspire.” This is hugely important. It’s the old Dole/McCain/Bush 41 thing again: Without energizing one’s base, it doesn’t matter if you can get a few extra percentage points from “swing” voters (even assuming it’s true that those extra few points are achievable — which is probably not true anyway, because if you aren’t inspirational, you aren’t inspirational, period, meaning you don’t inspire the middle either). It’s also true that millions of voters really can decide to stay home; remember that Karl Rove estimated that up to 4 million expected Evangelical Bush backers stayed home in 2000 after being disgusted by last-weekend news that Bush had had a drunk driving arrest way back when. The result, of course, was a race that took six extra weeks to decide.
Next is a candidate’s history, which was the basis of my original post on this front. Aside from winning the governorship against extremely weak opposition in a three-way race where he failed to get an actual majority of the vote, in a state that despite its liberalism had become accustomed to electing Republican governors (for 12 straight years), Romney still has never won an electorally significant victory that wasn’t in his native state (Michigan) or in a state that is his backyard and site of his vacation home (New Hampshire). Even in Iowa, his mere eight-vote win after five years of work there amounted to six (yes, count them, exactly six) fewer votes than he earned four years earlier in the same caucus system.
Then there’s the attacks on his tenure at Bain Capital. The attacks are over-the-top and unfair. But coming from the left in a general election campaign, they will work. That’s how a weakened Ted Kennedy in a Republican year blew open a tight race against Romney and won by a landslide — by attacking Bain (and by some subtle but effective exploitation of anti-Mormon bigotry, which unfortunately and unfairly and sickeningly will probably cost Romney a point and a half from otherwise GOP voters this year as well). What’s particularly devastating here is when a candidate’s big vulnerability is in the very area he tried to, and expected to, make his biggest political strength. Romney’s main selling point has been that he is a good businessman who proved himself in the private sector; if that gets taken away, he’s toast, because his record as governor was nothing to write home about, with his only significant “achievement” being the execrable one of Romneycare. This is very much akin to what happened to John Kerry, who tried to make his major selling point his supposed military “heroism,” when the highly on-target Swift Boat attacks made that same military service into a slight net liability. You can’t win when your biggest selling point is actually a vulnerability.
Romney, indeed, is the perfect foil for the Obama campaign, first because he is the very epitome of a Republican born rich who got richer by moving money around — a millionaire plutocrat who just can’t relate to “ordinary” Americans, and second because he is yet another Republican political/dynastic legatee. Think about it: We’ve gone from one Bush trying to outdo his Senate father by becoming president, to another Bush trying to outdo his president father by winning two terms as president, to a McCain trying to outdo his admiral father and admiral grandfather by becoming president… and now to a Romney trying to outdo his Michigan governor father and failed presidential front-runner by this time succeeding as a presidential front-runner. In the hands of the $800 million Obama campaign, this can easily by portrayed as a rather creepy and anti-American reliance on dynasticism.
Combine that with what appears to be a plastic insincerity (again, the “flip-flopping” charge was devastating against Al Gore and can be so again), with a “how dare you question me” attitude that increasingly has shown itself in debates, and with an utter failure to “connect” emotionally with what once were known as “Reagan Democrats” (old-ethnic. i.e. Italian-American/Polish-American, etc., blue collar workers, culturally conservative and on economics distrustful of Wall Street), and you have a recipe for an extraordinarily weak general election candidate.
Against all of that, all Romney can offer is a supposed greater acceptability to the educated, less culturally conservative, right-leaning economically, urban and suburbanites who are being targeted by Obama in places like Virginia and North Carolina. But the key thing here is that while these folks may be more socially liberal, they tend to vote more on the basis of their slightly upper-middle-income economic expectations rather than on social issues, and they’ll vote either for or against Obama based on those analyses regardless of who the Republican nominee is. But it is the blue-collar worker, or small-business retailer, who (polls show) votes more often on cultural cues (not necessarily social issues per se, although that is sometimes the case, but more on stylistic cultural cues and concerns) than on other factors. Again, this is obviously a gross over-generalization (as is most 30,000-foot-level political socio-analysis), but these are indeed, as Rick Santorum keeps saying, the people who swing elections in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. The are far more likely to swing behind Santorum (or Gingrich, or Perry) than behind the stiff rich guy with a “weird” religion and no middle-cultural social affinities (“shooting… small varmints” and flipping on homosexual “marriage”).
While general-election polls ten months out are not at all predictive of final results, they can indicate basic information about viability. Candidates with higher name ID (especially with low current “hard negatives” like Romney) can be expected to do far better than ones with low ID, low familiarity, etc. Thus, it is highly instructive that in recent polls in both Florida and North Carolina, Rick Santorum did almost exactly as well (margin of error) against Obama as Romney did, despite Romney’s far greater familiarity to voters.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, Romney just can’t campaign against Obama’s single biggest vulnerability, Obamacare. There are just too many similarities between Obamacare and Romneycare, too many bad results from Romneycare (busting the budget, etc.), and too many video clips of Romney from six years ago saying that he hoped that even the individual insurance mandate would become a “national model.” This will absolutely hobble Romney’s campaign. In fact, it might be an insurmountable problem.
All of which is to say that Willard Mitt Romney has very low growth potential in a general-election campaign against Obama. His downside might be not as low as John McCain’s was, four years ago, but his upside is negligible. As Larry Lindsey’s analysis (mentioned above) explains, this can be an easy recipe for what I call a “respectable loss.” But a loss is a loss is a loss. Romney is a weak general-election candidate who isn’t likely to get any better.