Ask Dr. Popkin: The 3 Myths of the Romney Campaign

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Through this campaign year the political scientist Samuel Popkin, of UC San Diego, author of the recent book about presidential campaigns The Candidate, has weighed in about the course of the race. Here is one from late September, with links to some other installments.

Now for his last dispatch before the election, Popkin gives us a "pre-mortem." He works from the assumption that all current indications hold, Barack Obama wins, Mitt Romney loses, and the margin is clear enough to spare us prolonged recounts, legal battles, and other complications. Here goes. Again, for the record, this is part of the day-long Festival of Hourly Posts to distract us all from the last spasm of the campaign. I've added emphasis in his message.

Q. Greetings, Sam. I know that you've been revving up to do a pre-mortem on the 2012 campaign, before it's actually finished. Today's the last chance. So what do you say?

Samuel Popkin:
I'm writing a premortem of the election because if Mitt Romney wins on Tuesday, it will be weeks before I understand where I went wrong.  Nate Silver, Simon Jackman and Simon Wang do independent, sophisticated statistical integration of state and local polls, and all predict an Obama victory to be highly probable. 

Beyond poll-crunching, however, there are other key signs Obama is on his way to serving a second term.  Republican Governors Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, by praising President Obama, and New York's formerly Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, by endorsing him, are not leading their supporters to Obama; they are following them to protect their own political futures because they believe Obama will win.  Bloomberg wants to preserve his centrist credentials, and there is no easier way to separate from Romney then by emphasizing the urgency of dealing with climate change.  Christie governs a state in which the president is popular; his sudden admiration of Obama benefits both of them at the expense of Romney, who will have no way of paying Christie back if he loses.  McDonnell was an early supporter of the Ryan budget, but now is backing away from the devilish details in that budget - like slashing FEMA.

After every presidential election campaign I rethink the implications of two kinds of surprises: events that surprised me by mattering more than I expected, and, like Sherlock Holmes and the hound that never barked, the events that didn't happen.  An incumbent is evaluated more on his record than on his campaign, so my focus here is on the challenger's campaign.
 
First note that the rationalizations and finger-pointing are already leaking out from the Romney campaign and the Republican Party.   I believe the leakers are engaged in "myth-making" to overstate the importance of one or more of three factors:  Tropical Storm Sandy, the first debate, or the personal failings of Governor Romney.
 
Myth One is that Sandy defeated Mitt Romney. On October 31, two days after Sandy battered the eastern seaboard, Karl Rove wrote that the national numbers favored Romney.  By this weekend he was giving interviews about the October surprise that took the wind out of the Romney campaign.
 
If Romney stalled because Sandy deprived him of news coverage, that means that paid media - which never stopped - was ineffective. Overstating the electoral effect of Sandy is a way of explaining away the fact that all that paid media bought by the Republican Super-PACs was of limited value at the end of a presidential race.
 
Myth Two is that the first debate was a Game Changer for Romney.  Yes, Romney was at his best and Obama was flat - even by the standards of past incumbents, who typically are at their worst in the first debate after four years inside the presidential bubble.  But the "permanent" bump in the polls was smaller than claimed by reporters craving a new story line.
 
At no point before or after the first debate did Mitt Romney ever lead in enough state polls to cobble together 270 electoral votes.  When Karl Rove talked about national polls in his Wall Street Journal column last week, he knew full well that state polls are a more accurate prediction of election outcomes.  That is why he seldom relied on national polls in the presidential campaigns he ran in the past.

Romney definitely gained two to three points after the Denver debate, as reluctant Republicans and Independents returned home.  That may have prevented an Obama blowout, but it was too little too late.
  
Myth Three is that the Republicans lost because Romney was a lousy candidate.  A Republican capable of winning the Massachusetts gubernatorial election - not to mention one capable of enacting the cost-saving healthcare policy advocated by the Heritage Foundation - is not devoid of talent.  And were his oft-discussed personality flaws any worse than Richard Nixon's?
 
To put it bluntly: either the Romney campaign never had a chance, or they blew it through early strategic choices.  I believe that, while it is never easy to take on an incumbent, the Romney campaign lost whatever chance they had because of early mistakes.
 
Whenever you hear politicians say an election is not about the party, you can be sure it is about the party.  The Romney campaign had some serious shortcomings but their major errors were made in the primary, when they miscalculated how much red meat they could feed their voracious base and still win in November.  Either they overestimated how damaged Obama would be by the bad economy or they overestimated how much damage Romney could sustain in the primaries and still recover.   Either way, the underlying fault lies with the Republican Party's increasingly radical policies, which placed Romney in the perilous position of reconciling the concerns of the independents needed to win the general election with the demands of primary voters who had been promised the moon.
 
Twelve months ago Stuart Stevens, Romney's strategist, told Robert Draper, "The economy is overwhelmingly the issue. Our whole campaign is premised on the idea that this is a referendum on Obama, the economy is a disaster and Obama is uniquely blocked from being able to talk about jobs." Stevens came up with a clever refrain - "Obama Isn't Working" - but never produced a strategy to make this a one-issue election, instead opening the door for Obama to talk about what he had done to save jobs, contrast himself with Romney, who had sent them overseas when he ran Bain.
 
In 1968, Richard Nixon evaded the press, never divulging his secret plan for Vietnam or explaining how he would restore law and order by quelling anti-war and civil rights protests.  But he didn't have to. Those two dominant issues were answered by Nixon's strong track record on foreign policy and the overwhelming perception of the Republican Party as the party of law and order. 

In contrast, the Republican party of 2012 does not have a solid track record on the issues of the day, including immigration, Medicare, and aid to education as well as job growth.  When Romney picked Paul Ryan over Chris Christie for vice-president, I assumed they would soon announce a revised Romney-Ryan budget to move toward the center and jettison the most politically damaging parts of a very unpopular budget.  Instead they avoided discussing the budget at all, save for protests that it was too "wonky" or complicated for voters to understand.
 
The business school star who excelled at strategic planning at Bain has failed to plan ahead on his own campaign. James Carville's famous credo, "the economy, stupid," helped keep the 1992 focus on the economy, which was possible only because Bill Clinton had developed reasonable policies on crime, welfare and abortion that protected him against an ambush on social issues on his way to battle on the economy.  If an army knows the grounds on which they want to fight, they need to suppress enemy fire on the march to their preferred battlefield.
 
This is why I believe some of the strategists are overstating the bump after the first debate.  The Romney campaign was criticized publicly and often for allowing the Obama campaign to define him.  If, however, Romney's performance in Denver led to a winning swing in his direction, it validates the idea that Obama's attacks on Romney's record and character were better answered in the debate, when people had started to pay closer attention.  I don't buy that argument; if Romney was right to wait, then John Kerry's campaign was right to ignore the swiftboating attacks during the summer of 2004, too.

From the day he clinched the nomination, I kept wondering why Romney didn't distinguish his political identity from his party's, just as Bill Clinton showed he was willing to challenge special interests within his party by publicly criticizing Sister Souljah's lyrics in front of Jesse Jackson.
 
Stuart Stevens is a veteran of the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, but he did not appear to appreciate the difference between the political terrain in 2004 and 2012.  In 2004, when Democrats painted Cheney as a profiteering military contractor, Stevens invited them to "Bring it on!" The attacks on the VP only served to fire up the conservative base and keep the focus on the Republican-friendly issue of national security. 

Well, letting Obama "bring it on" in 2012 - when the president's campaign hammered Romney as a rich, heartless financier - didn't fire up the Republican base and keep the focus on jobs.  Thanks to Super-PACs aligned with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, millions of dollars had already been spent during the primaries attacking Romney for the way Bain left employees without jobs or pensions.  As I learned in 1992 when I worked with the Clinton campaign, early mud washes off slowly.

A politician's personal character is a moral firewall; it reassures people about a candidate's past record or the unsavory planks of his party's platform.   People do assume that wealthy people like Romney are smarter and work harder than most others.  They also, as Pew research has revealed, consider the very rich more greedy than others.  I confess to being totally unable to explain why Romney waited so long to talk about his church and community service, or why someone who wanted to be president wouldn't have closed his Cayman Islands and Swiss bank accounts before he became a candidate. 

People "Envy up and Scorn Down," as the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske explains.   People who envy Romney's wealth and lifestyle may also wonder if he scorns them.  Note how often Democrats characterized Romney as thinking that voters are "too dumb to notice" when talking about  the details of Ryan budget. 

The civil war in the Republican Party has already begun. I expect the big push for Republican rebranding to occur at the state and local levels, where governance is critical to anyone with long-term national ambitions. Look for Republican governors to fight for programs they need to govern.  (Senators build identities and raise money on issue positions, not performance, and are far slower to change.) I believe that Governors Christie and McDonnell went farther than necessary in their praise of President Obama because they wanted to distance themselves as fast as possible from a Republican budget that would slash funding for FEMA and turn disaster relief over to the states. 

After Vice President Walter Mondale lost the 1984 election, the Democratic Party, led by governors in the Democratic Leadership Council, moved toward the center because enough Democratic politicians recognized that the fundamental problem was the party, not the candidate or his campaign.   Let's see if enough Republicans can see through the rationalizing myths to save their party in the same way.

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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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