For Romney, Everything Is Going According to the (Original) Plan

By Molly Ball

He won New Hampshire and Florida, and looks good heading into Nevada. Was Romney's initial campaign strategy right all along?

romneyplan.banner.jpg

A year ago, Mitt Romney had a plan. He would downplay Iowa and South Carolina, states where he faced inhospitable electorates and a messy history. He would plant his flag in the more congenial environs of New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

It was a risky hypothetical hopscotch to the nomination, including as it did only a single traditional early state (New Hampshire). It would require Romney to build a base of money and organization in his targeted states firm enough to weather the momentum of one or more candidates who would be coming hot off wins in the states he bypassed. It would not be easy. But to Romney, having tried and failed at the money-is-no-object, every-front war in 2008, it seemed like the only way.

Fast forward to February 2012. Romney has won big in New Hampshire and dominated in Florida. He's beaten back two candidates who got hot in Iowa and South Carolina, capitalizing on those states' religious and Tea Party conservative bases that were never going to come around to Romney. Now, the frontrunner looks ahead to Nevada as the capstone of what seems a nearly certain march to the nomination.

The race for the Republican nomination has been a wild ride, full of twists and turns and sudden reversals. But in the long view, for Mitt Romney, it has gone almost exactly according to plan.

As the campaign celebrated its Florida victory early Wednesday, Romney's chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, acknowledged as much: "All of this is difficult to wargame, but yes, we do feel good about where we are," he said.

Even when Romney has stumbled along the way, it has been for the best, said Mark McKinnon, the Texas-based strategist, wit, and former George W. Bush adviser. "Romney has played it generally very smartly everywhere," he said. "He took a bit of a nap in South Carolina, but that served to wake him up and get his game back on for Florida."

All winning campaigns are brilliant in hindsight -- it's Tolstoy's First Rule of Politics (corollary: every losing campaign is dysfunctional in its own way). And Romney's cautious, top-heavy braintrust didn't really keep its eye on the prize. Rather, he got drawn into full-on competition in Iowa and South Carolina, heightening expectations and exacerbating what might have been inevitable losses in those states instead of breezing by them. Within the Romney organization, these decisions have been the subject of much discussion, and even now opinions are divided on whether the right course was taken.

Some analysts think Romney got suckered into competing in those states.

"I never really saw the value in him going into Iowa and South Carolina," said Christian Ferry, former deputy campaign manager for John McCain.

But there was an upside, he noted: "The overall Romney effort in Iowa helped kick down Newt Gingrich." The ads Romney's allied super PAC aired in Iowa were a successful dry run for the brutal onslaught they would unleash in Florida. The loss in South Carolina, meanwhile, may have punctured Romney's inevitability, but it made him stronger once he rebounded.

The Romney camp notes that there was never an explicit decision made to pull out of Iowa or South Carolina. The official line always was that he would compete in all of the early states. But Romney adviser Kevin Madden acknowledged that it was a different approach from 2008's flood-the-zone effort.

"The plan was to compete in all of the early primary states. The difference was that this effort would be guided by the experience of 2008, when we went very heavy with resources in many of those states," Madden said. "This time, we were very efficient with our resources in Iowa. We made sure the governor did what he needed to be in position to possibly win," and he came very close.

Similarly, in South Carolina, Romney advocates contend he moved to capitalize on an apparent opportunity but didn't get bogged down in a quixotic, uphill effort. Meanwhile, in Florida, Romney's legwork gave him a huge head start on the other candidates.

Romney's Florida win "is cashing in on a lot of work they put in before people were paying attention down here," said Tallahassee-based media consultant Rick Wilson. "They've had an early vote and absentee program, TV and radio on the air since the beginning of the year. He had a huge organizational advantage over Gingrich."

Now the contest, such as it still is, moves on to Nevada, where Romney, who took 51 percent of the vote in 2008, is nearly assured of victory. More important than the caucus results will be whether Romney can use the coming days to cement the national perception of his frontrunner status as the other candidates flail.

He doesn't need to worry about his Nevada operation, run by one of the state's top operatives who guided his winning effort four years ago. "The highs and lows of the national campaign have happened, different candidates have been in and out of the spotlight, but we've never lost focus on what we had to do here -- figure out our universe, identify supporters, advocate to them and turn them out to caucus," said the operative, Ryan Erwin, who runs a Nevada- and Texas-based Western regional consultancy.

Even opponents concede Romney's advantage in Nevada is formidable. "This has always been Romney's state to lose," said Chuck Muth, a Las Vegas-based adviser to Winning Our Future, the Gingrich super PAC. "I don't think that's ever been in serious jeopardy. Gingrich could have made a run for it if he had won Florida." But that didn't happen.

Republican strategist Keith Appell said the crucial indicator for Romney now is whether the conservative base falls in line or rises up again, as it did in South Carolina. But he said that which has not killed Romney so far -- his humiliating failure in two key states -- has made him stronger.

"I don't think Romney and his team anticipated as much of a shellacking as they got in South Carolina," Appell said. "Romney still has a lot to prove, especially in the Southern states."

But even with the clarity of hindsight, Appell said, Romney has made all the right moves. "He competed and got beaten badly, but now he's the comeback kid," he said. "In hindsight, if I were in charge of his campaign, I still would have played in South Carolina."

Image credit: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/02/for-romney-everything-is-going-according-to-the-original-plan/252326/