Men of a certain age recall the classic arcade video game Punch Out. As an up and coming fighter, you battled a string of contenders before making it to the champ. First up, Glass Joe, so called because his weak chin invariably resulted in a knockout, provided you landed one clean punch. When the story of the 2012 Republican primary season is written, the overarching themes will be the failure of a historically weak field to land that one clean punch that would have sent “Glass Joe” Mitt Romney to the canvas and the great “what if” of what the race would have looked like had a more formidable alternative to Romney decided to enter the race. Instead, the GOP will send a deeply flawed and weak candidate up against President Obama where he will almost certainly go down to defeat.
Mitt Romney is literally being carried across the finish line by a well organized group of “establishment” political and thought leaders and a small group of very wealthy financiers who have pumped more than $30 million dollars into the Governor’s “Super PAC” Restore Our Future. The candidate’s own fundraising lags the President’s, and he has benefited from a group of challengers who were strategically inept and unprepared for the rigors of a Presidential campaign. That his consultants view these modest achievements as cause for celebration tells you something about the shameless spinning those folks do.
So where did it all go wrong? What counterfactual can legitimately be spun to show why Mitt Romney could have been defeated?
The early debates. First, conservative challengers spent far too much time elbowing each other in an attempt to gain the mantle as the alternative to Romney instead of just going after him directly. In this way, Romney skated through many early debates, rarely having to do anything other than regurgitate his canned talking points without being challenged about the particulars of his policy, background or experience. While conservatives attempted to “out conservative” each other, Romney looked like the adult in the room – a man, as he oddly put it, of “constancy” who was not going to sully himself with ugly and personal attacks.
Instead of attempting to win the hearts of conservative voters, consider what would have happened had Rick Santorum launched his devastatingly effective debate attack on “Romneycare” and the fact that Romney voted for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic primary, 4 weeks before the
caucus instead of a week before the Iowa primary. Not only did Romney bristle and stumble through this explanation, but a well-funded, strategically oriented campaign would have been able to make great hay out of these points through paid advertising. There would have been no need to battle others to gain the conservative vote when so much more of the Republican electorate would have been more receptive to a message that reflected Romney’s weakness. Florida
Of course, Romney put his foot in his mouth in other debates, the famous “$10,000 bet” gaffe against Rick Perry and his 184 word You Tube classic prevarication on whether he would or would not release his taxes are two that come to mind, but neither flub (or other odd statements Romney has made along the way) was ever taken advantage of by his opponents because none had either the financial backing or the broad-based campaign strategy to make these attacks stick. While both errors were played up in the media as a form of “free” advertising against Romney, story of the day chatter is just that – story of the day – unless a candidate is able to amplify that message over and over so that the narrative becomes a more general indictment of an opponent’s weakness.
Money Talks, Bullshit Walks. Speaking of money, to Romney’s credit, his campaign was well ahead of the curve when it came to understanding and leveraging the ability of Super PACs to do the dirty work of campaigning while allowing the candidate to remain above the fray. For months, Romney successfully portrayed himself as positive while declaiming any role in the work of his Super PAC because federal law prohibits coordination. That the Super PAC is run by his ex-aides and that Romney recited, almost verbatim, the allegations made in at least one of the ads it created, were two points that a better organized (and funded) opponent would have incessantly harped on to the point that the lack of coordination would have looked like a fancy bit of legalese and political fiction that was a distinction without a difference.
More generally, no other campaign created a sufficient infrastructure to mount a nationwide campaign. The failure of all the candidates except Romney and Paul to get on the Virginia ballot, missing delegate slates, poor advance work, lack of coordinated messaging and about 100 other things that a modern Presidential campaign needs simply did not exist. While Santorum was driving around all 99
counties to eke out a 20 vote victory, Romney was already carpet bombing Iowa with ads and making phone calls to Florida Republicans who were voting absentee or early. Newt won South Carolina, but from his victory speech through his crushing loss in Florida, his messaging was horrible, he was ill-prepared for the two crucial debates where more polished preparation from a well-funded candidate (Romney) was apparent, and he had events that were poorly attended. In short, there was no strategic thinking going on months ago (or even in real time) because Gingrich simply does not have the infrastructure and resources to do the type of deep planning that Romney, with his far deeper coffers and staff, could do. It matters. New Hampshire
The Weak Field. Ultimately, Mitt Romney is limping toward the GOP nomination against the weakest Republican field in modern history with lockstep (but unenthusiastic) support from the establishment GOP (politicians, media, talk radio) and his Super PAC, who, as the primaries have dragged on, focus less and less on Romney’s ideas and more and more on the idea that Romney is the only candidate who can beat the President. Much ink has been spilled discussing the flirtation GOP primary voters had with Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (twice) but less about the fact that few (if any?) of these candidates was ever considered viable.
Consider Rick Santorum. He’s held on largely because the primary roulette wheel landed on him with impeccable timing – just a week before the
caucus. While there is no question Santorum was doing the retail politics necessary to win Iowa , he was not running a meaningful campaign anywhere else. That he lost his last statewide race by nearly 18 points and is best known for having his last name perverted into a definition for a rather graphic aspect of anal sex meant little within the tiny window of momentum that helped push him to a win in Iowa . Now that Iowa is over, the gloss from that win (which itself was not even confirmed for more than a week afterward) is long gone. Santorum was unable to leverage that momentum in subsequent contests because his campaign was not prepared for his being in the race after Iowa . No fundraising, little infrastructure, no national advertising or any of the other hallmarks of a “real” Presidential campaign. Iowa
Another prime example is Governor Rick Perry. Had Perry started building a foundation for a run in the Summer of 2010 instead of 2011, he might have fared better. While he came into the race with a splash, his thin policy chops and inability to debate were quickly exposed. Indeed, Perry stands out as a candidate who will probably rue his campaign more than others. His fundraising apparatus would have afforded him the ability to run a national campaign had it been done thoughtfully and with diligence. If Governor Perry spent 6-12 months immersing himself in foreign and domestic policy, carefully planned a roll-out of his candidacy (including prominent endorsements and strong fundraising) and been drilled on a few basic message points, he would have been a serious contender. Instead, his campaign was done on the fly, with little in the way of substantive policy and almost no preparation before he entered the candidate debates. The initial impressions of Perry as a swaggering outsider quickly dissolved into a narrative of incompetence and buffoonery. Once done, Perry was stuck between the push and pull of needing to campaign and needing to be properly briefed on policy. Although he was able to get under Romney’s skin at several debates, his initial forays were so laughable that by the time he was able to find ballast, the rationale for his candidacy had disappeared.
Other contenders, like Bachmann, Cain and Paul were never serious threats to secure the nomination and if anything, sucked up an enormous amount of oxygen that could have been directed at scrutinizing Romney (tax returns, anyone?) or thinning the debate field in a way that would have allowed for lengthier exchanges among candidates deemed to have a legitimate chance of contending for the nomination. Finally, also rans like Pawlenty and Huntsman, although having credentials that might have made them reasonable alternatives to Romney, never articulated a clear rationale for their candidacies and failed to raise money sufficient to keep them afloat. The sound of wallets closing when “T-Paw” came calling says something about how lightly regarded he was in establishment circles. That he whiffed on making a simple attack on Governor Romney at an early debate just confirmed that he was not ready for prime time.
And the result of all of these flame outs was an everlasting desire to launch trial balloons in the direction of everyone from Mitch Daniels to Haley Barbour to come and act as the conservative savoir. As recently as the
primary, a robust 38% of those polled wanted other candidates to enter the race. Perhaps those politicians who did not enter the race were on to something – they were experienced and savvy enough to know that you simply cannot launch a Presidential campaign in the middle of a Presidential campaign. Daniels and Barbour both have long Washington experience and other potential candidates like Paul Ryan and Chris Christie no doubt understood that a campaign of this sort is not a turn key operation but rather, a complicated, expensive and highly sophisticated undertaking that takes years to plan, and even then, there is no guarantee of success. Florida
While the clamor for other candidates speaks to the field’s weakness, the coordinated and unrelenting attacks on Newt Gingrich in the wake first of his rise in Iowa (which was cut short through a blizzard of negative ads) and after his win in South Carolina (same strategy, just augmented by the collective hate boner of every establishment Republican from John McCain to Bob Dole and conservative pundit from Charles Krauthammer to Ann Coulter) reflected a coordinated takedown Republicans typically save for attacking Democrats. Florida will no doubt receive its own chapter in every political junkie’s book about the 2012 campaign, but the 5:1 spending advantage Romney leveraged to bury Gingrich under an avalanche of negativity, combined with the coordinated amplification of “Gingrich is unelectable” messaging done in conservative media, is unlikely to be seen within the GOP anytime soon. Essentially, the GOP establishment made a decision that Newt looked far more like Barry Goldwater in 1964 than Ronald Reagan in 1980 and that if Romney is Bob Dole in 1996 or John McCain in 2008, they are willing to roll the dice on eking out a narrow victory (or losing graciously) than risking a blowout for the low percentage chance Gingrich leads another conservative revolution.
Even Romney’s purported comeback in Florida, which was based in part on what was spun as strong debate performances, is a trope that will come back to haunt Republicans. While Romney was well prepared to use Newt’s background as a “lobbyist” for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae against him, his contortions on other issues from the housing market to health care, from entitlements programs to immigration, added more fodder to the already considerable video library of flip flops, prevarications and outright contradictions Romney has made about policy depending on what the subject was and where he was speaking. That Santorum so easily slipped the verbal knife into the soft underbelly of “Romneycare” and casually mentioned that Romney voted in the Democratic primary in 1992 without proper response from Governor Romney does not bode well for the barrage of negative campaign ads that will be unleashed against him by the Democrats. Gingrich may be full of bluster and an air of self-aggrandizement, but the President is a far more measured and skillful debater who will move with ease around Romney and flummox him (which is not that hard to do) into misstatements that will reflect his inability to respond extemporaneously to criticism.
Ultimately, all of this speaks to the unspoken – that Mitt Romney is being accepted in Republican circles with all of the enthusiasm of a trip to the proctologist’s office. The deafening silence that accompanied Romney’s “I don’t care about poor people” gaffe says more about the establishment’s view of him than anything else. Instead of hopping up and down and blaming the “liberal” media for misconstruing Romney’s words, instead we got disparaging articles about Romney from The Wall Street Journal and National Review Online. Although Romney’s tax returns, once released, received little coverage in the swirl of the primaries, rest assured that his Swiss,
and other foreign investment vehicles will be brought up over and over again during the general election. While these investments may not, in a vacuum do him much harm, Romney’s other “made for TV” blunders, about corporations being people, about his enjoyment of firing people and other tone deaf statements are all feeding into a narrative of an out-of-touch elitist – the very embodiment of the 1 percent. Cayman Island
The lack of enthusiasm for Romney is also seen in the raw voting figures. Aside from South Carolina, where turnout was up from 2008, the other early caucus and primary states all showed self-identified Republican voters down 10% or more from the last election. Overall, 100,000 fewer people have voted in the Republican primaries and caucuses than in 2008 and Romney himself underperformed his vote total in Iowa from four years ago, was absolutely hammered in South Carolina, where he lost every Congressional district, and needed more than $15 million in negative advertising against Newt Gingrich to win Florida. In short, Romney is redefining the term “winning ugly” in 2012 and has stooped to do so against a field that is weak, underfunded and was, at least until recently, littered with “not ready for prime time” players who no one in the political chattering class took seriously.
Romney’s aides have done yeoman’s work to protect their candidate’s glass jaw, but the longer this campaign goes, the harder it will be to hide it. A weak field had Romney on the ropes on several occasions but could not finish the job. That Romney barely survived these attacks does not make him a stronger candidate because his inability to “punch his weight” against mediocre competition will not make him any more equipped to defeat the President than his flameout in 2008 against Mike Huckabee and John McCain. A political commentator once noted that over the course of a campaign, a candidate’s personality is inevitably exposed. So it will be with Mr. 1%, who struggled to beat a ragtag group of competitors only to be portrayed as the poster child for the plutocracy – an out-of-touch elitist whose complete lack of core make him an easily caricatured politician – John Kerry without the war medals, Al Gore without the policy chops, Michael Dukakis without the tank. In short, a loser.