Ask Dr. Popkin: Can the Romney Campaign Be Saved?

Through this election season we've heard from Samuel Popkin, of UC San Diego, a political scientist and author of a recent book on how presidents position themselves for election and re-election runs. For previous installments see this and this from back in May, and this and this from August.

Popkin's book pays close attention to Harry Truman's come-from-behind victory in 1948, as I described in an article earlier this year (now expanded in e-book form). The natural question is, How do the come-from-behind prospects look for Mitt Romney?

Every mistake a candidate can make, Romney seems to have made, and the frequency of mis-steps and "off-message" distractions seems to be going up. He's never been ahead of Obama, and members of his own party seem variously to be despairing, calling for radical changes in course, or assuming failure and positioning themselves for 2016. Meanwhile Democrats are afraid of jinxing things by pointing out Romney's continued struggles as the clock ticks down -- and also genuinely worried about vote-suppression efforts.

What can Romney do? How do things stand? Let's Ask Dr. Popkin (emphasis added):

Dear Jim:

Every spring, I open the door for Elijah the prophet at Passover, so I understand Peggy Noonan's hopes for a CEO like James Baker to appear and rescue the Romney campaign from [her words] "rolling calamity."  And every fall, I cringe when the Chargers settle for a field goal near the end zone, so I understand David Brooks's feeling that America needs more entrepreneurial boldness and grandiosity from our presidential candidates.  Yet both Noonan and Brooks are missing key points.

Noonan is romanticizing James Baker's abilities.  True, he was one of the best campaign - and White House - chiefs of staff for the entire post-WW II period I studied writing The Candidate.  But Baker isn't infallible; he couldn't salvage the re-election campaign of his good friend President George H W Bush when he took over in September of 1992, and even a man with Baker's skills would have trouble trying to overcome Mitt Romney's self-inflicted damage.

Brooks is wrong to equate disdain and distrust of Mitt Romney with a decline in America's appreciation for bold entrepreneurs.  Utility magnates were reviled during the Great Depression, but few Americans today take exception to the wealth of cultural heroes like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Sergei Brin and Larry Page.  Americans resent businessmen who take advantage of market dominance to squeeze competitors and extract monopoly rents, but admire innovators who acquire vast fortunes from developing popular new products.

The Romney campaign's recent performance is a case study in mismanagement and poor strategic planning.  Candidates for president must do three jobs at once: audition to be the country's first family, head a startup company that offers a new vision for the future, and act as CEO of a rapidly growing corporation trying to expand its market share.
 
Romney's ongoing problems - as most recently highlighted in the leaked fundraiser video - stem from the combustible combination of his inability to demonstrate concern for the burdens his plans impose on ordinary citizens, coupled with his failure to define a vision that could expand his market share beyond the extreme right.  Let's break these two ideas down:

First, principled pandering is only possible when a candidate begins with core principles.  

All politicians pander, but in order to persuade enough voters that one has the ability to both govern and make policy in a country as diverse as ours, politicians must pander within reasonable limits.  Every politician is tempted to indulge in moon-promising; H L Mencken once said that if a congressman discovered there were cannibals in his district, he'd promise them missionaries.  But unsustainable pandering backfires; candidates with coherent strategies learn that they must often "just say no" to maintain broad credibility. When conservative social activists demanded that Governor George W Bush pledge never to hire gays in his administration, he refused; when Governor Bill Clinton was pushed to rule out the possibility of tax increases, he refused as well.

In order to stay within the limits of credibility, one must be careful in private as well as in public.  Recall candidate Obama's comment about bitter people clinging to their guns and bibles, or Clinton's blithe promise 20 years ago that gays would be able to openly serve in the military.

Stu Spencer said it best years ago, reflecting on his work with Nelson Rockefeller, President Ford and many campaigns with and against Ronald Reagan:  you ask the candidate where they stand and then "You start working them over, coming at them. . . . If you can move them . . . you know that they don't have a very hard-core value system."  A candidate's stand is the political equivalent of a dancer's spot.  To avoid losing her bearings, a dancer focuses on a single spot and returns her focus to that same spot as she spins.  If a candidate knows his stand well enough to keep it in focus, he can dance around his positions, adjusting his rhetoric to the audience and occasion without losing his balance.

So it is not Romney's pandering that surprises me, for this is a political inevitability.  But I am surprised that he has gone about it so clumsily. When I read the transcript of the infamous Romney video Mother Jones released, I am most struck by his lack of political horse sense.  Unless Romney believed his only winning strategy was to be the last candidate standing when the economy collapsed, this was an inept performance.

Second, the GOP Tea Party base is pushing for policies that cannot be defended nationally by a presidential candidate.

The Romney campaign wanted the election to be a referendum on Obama's record on jobs.   Once the Tea Party tail started wagging the elephant, Romney pandered himself into a corner.    Each time the Romney campaign has seemed ready to acknowledge a more centrist idea, the far right yelled and Romney blinked.
 
As a result of the baggage Romney took on during the primaries, the Obama campaign has been able to frame the election as a choice between two futures, and campaign on a defense of stark contrasts on immigration, contraception, healthcare and tax policies...

Voters may accept Mitt Romney's competence, but knowing he is good at using power doesn't mean people will trust him with it.  What in Romney's record or the current performance of the Republican Party will persuade swing voters that Romney should have their proxy in the coming fights over whom and what to tax and who should receive benefits?

When he selected Paul Ryan as his running mate, I expected Romney to make some moderating statements regarding the Ryan budget plan.   It looks like he put Paul Ryan and his budget on the ticket with no advance planning for how they would fill in the blanks and reassure voters.  I have yet to hear anything resembling "we're all in this together" or "united we stand."  Instead, his articulation has differed little from the leaked fund-raiser video, and sounds more like "we are the goose that lays your golden eggs."

Like Saint Augustine with his prayers, politicians know they have to reform, "but not just yet." The Simpson-Bowles Commission itself was a compromise to defer necessary but painful spending cuts and tax increases.  Romney could have attacked the political head-in-the-sand ostriches on both sides of the aisle.  He could have even talked about reopening the discussions.

The only context in which a candidate doesn't have to provide detailed plans is when voters are already certain that either he or his party has what it takes to solve the problems they care about.  In 1968, Richard Nixon didn't have to explain his secret plan for Vietnam or what he would do about riots and unrest across the nation.  Nixon's strong track record on foreign policy spoke for itself and the Republican Party was clearly the party of law and order.  2012 is not like 1968, and Republicans do not have a strong record on job creation or foreign policy right now.  

Even if Romney does win, a civil war among Republicans seems inevitable.  Jeb Bush and Lindsay Graham have already moved away from the once-popular, absolutist no-taxes-ever pledges, and in every state with a sizeable Hispanic population (save Arizona) more centrist Republicans are pushing for sensible immigration reform.  Suddenly, some Republican candidates in battleground states are trumpeting bipartisanship and compromise and distancing themselves from the more extreme positions of Romney and Ryan.

Barring economic collapse, Romney's only shot is to get people to reassess him. 

Prompting reassessment at this late date means finding new information that surprises people and makes them wonder if the case against Romney is badly flawed.  This requires more than a kinder, gentler Romney or a stronger, tougher Romney that out debates the president.   Either people rethink what policies and people he stands for or the election depends solely on who is motivated - and allowed - to vote.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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