Back in July, I wrote an article (picked up at RealClearPolitics) making so bold as to predict how the election was going to play out and that Mitt Romney would win. That prediction looked bad for a while and looks a good deal better now, so it’s worth taking a look at how the campaign has actually worked out over the following three months to see what I got wrong and what I got right.
Back then, I predicted that the Obama campaign only had a few days left—until the beginning of the Olympics at the end of July—to paint Romney as a corporate villain. After that, I predicted that Romney would begin to take the upper hand. The Olympics would help publicize his leadership record, his selection of a vice-presidential nominee would dominate the airwaves, the convention would let him bypass the media and let voters know all of the good things about him that they haven’t been hearing, and after the convention he would enjoy a spending advantage.
It turns out I was wrong. But then again, I was right.
The Olympics did drown out the Obama campaign, yet Romney’s overseas trip was filtered through the mainstream media, which squeezed it into their chosen narrative: that Romney was prone to gaffes. They were assisted by the British press, which took an innocuous statement by Romney about the London Olympics and blew it up into an international incident. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate did attract most of the publicity between the Olympics and the convention, but to Romney’s credit it was a bolder and riskier choice than expected, so while it helped Romney in the polls, this was mostly because the Republican “base” rallied behind Ryan.
The Republican Convention was Romney’s first big chance to unveil himself to the American people and bypass the media filter, but he squandered the opportunity. His campaign kicked off its most important hour of primetime network coverage with a rambling, unscripted speech by an aging celebrity—Clint Eastwood’s famous debate with an empty chair—and ended it with a lackluster speech from Romney. He got no bounce coming out of the convention, while Bill Clinton worked his famous (and to me mysterious) charm and delivered a speech that gave Obama a bounce coming out of his convention in early September.
That was followed by the “narrative of failure.” Romney was never really as far behind as the skewed polls of September implied, but they fed the media’s favorite story line: a bumbling, gaffe-prone candidate running a faltering campaign. It’s a self-reinforcing narrative, because the more the media chatters about Romney’s supposed failures, the more independent voters start to believe it must be true and write him off.
So while I thought the Romney campaign was letting Obama punch himself out in July so that they could come back hitting hard in August, Romney just kept getting further behind.
But the potential for a big turnaround was there, waiting for the first presidential debate. In that debate, voters finally got to see the real Mitt Romney. I don’t mean the real Romney in terms of his concrete political beliefs. There is no “real” Mitt Romney in that respect; like most politicians, he is a pragmatist without firm convictions. But voters saw the real Romney in terms of his character: a decent fellow who is well-informed, focused, competent, self-confident, engaged with the issues. And they got to see him in contrast to a president who was disengaged, sour, slightly petulant, and prone to the repetition of well-worn talking points. In a way, the real winner of the first debate was Clint Eastwood, whose debate with an empty chair suddenly seemed like a penetrating insight into Obama’s character.
And here’s what I got right. This is the big picture I laid out back in July.
When a president is running for re-election, it is inherently a referendum on the incumbent, so if his approval ratings are below 50%, he’s in trouble. If a majority disapproves of his performance, that means they are going to be likely to cast their votes for the challenger. Obama is below 50% now. He’s been around 47% in the RealClearPolitics average for a long time now, and since some of the polls tend to overestimate support for Democrats, the real number is probably a few points lower.
But this just means that voters are willing to consider the challenger, and you can still convince them to stop considering him. Which means that an embattled incumbent has only one way to win: convince voters that the challenger is not an acceptable alternative.
Hence the negative campaign against Romney. He needs to be made out as a corporate Snidely Whiplash who lays off workers, outsources their jobs to China, hides his profits in Swiss bank accounts, and lies about it to cover it all up. So that is exactly the story Obama’s negative ads have been trying to tell. The attack ad in which Romney ties the girl to the railroad tracks is coming next.
So the main thing Romney needed to accomplish was to reach voters directly, let them get their own first-hand sense of who he is, and defeat the negative caricature of him that had been broadcast by the Obama campaign and their followers in the mainstream media. He didn’t manage to do that during the Olympics or during the convention, but he finally managed it in the first debate. Crucially, he won that debate by such a wide margin that even Obama’s staunchest partisans in the media had to admit that Romney won, defeating the “narrative of failure.” At that point, the game was over, the hundreds of millions of dollars Obama had poured into negative ads were neutralized, and several million independent voters embraced Romney as an acceptable alternative to the incumbent.
That’s why the second and third presidential debates haven’t really mattered. Independent voters have already made the key decision about Romney. It would have taken some very spectacular event to cause them to unmake it, and that didn’t happen.
Recently, I noticed two key signs that Romney is winning. First, the mainstream media is finally providing real coverage of Romney’s extensive charitable activities. Apparently, it’s OK to say nice things about him now that he’s winning—and now that reporters might need to build up a little good will with the incoming Romney administration. Second, partisans on the left have started preparing the ground for a Romney presidency. How? By claiming that the economy is really, truly just about to turn the corner this time and take off, just after the election. They are facing a big dilemma: what happens if the economy revives under President Romney? Won’t that discredit the policies of the left? So they are preparing to claim that the economy was primed to take off anyway, and Obama and his policies should actually get the credit for anything good that happens under Romney.
Now that we know why Mitt Romney is winning, we can also get a sense of the limits of that victory. His entire strategy is to hammer home the failure of Obama’s economic policies, and then to present himself as a plausible, competent, non-threatening alternative. Thus, his most effective argument is the one presented in a Republican National Committee web ad which consists of a long response from Romney in the second debate, taking apart Obama’s dismal record. But when it comes to his own positions, he has reverted to more moderate positions in the debates, and spent much of the final debate agreeing with President Obama.
Here is where one of the things I hoped to see has not materialized. After predicting the shape of the race, I noted that a string of statements from Obama attacking entrepreneurial success—quotes like “you didn’t build that”—had given Romney the opportunity to preach “the secular American gospel of success.” So I urged him to keep on doing that.
Mitt Romney’s path to victory is clear. He needs to keep on preaching the gospel. If the election is a contest between the inspiring, optimistic individualism Romney has been offering this week, and the bitter, belittling collectivism revealed by Obama last week, then the advocate of striving individualism is always going to win.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t been doing that, at least not nearly as strongly as he did in July. He has been more focused on appealing to moderates, pandering to protectionist sentiment in Ohio’s industrial towns, and reassuring suburban soccer moms that he doesn’t want to dismantle the welfare state or start a new war.
Which means that he is running only on the idea that Obama’s economic policies have failed and that he offers a reasonable alternative. It’s an effective argument, because Obama has failed and Romney is a better alternative. But it is a very limited argument, and it makes for a very non-ideological campaign.
It isn’t just the Romney campaign that is responsible. From the beginning, the Obama campaign has been defined by negative personal attacks on the challenger. The low point of the third debate, for example, was when the candidates were discussion sanctions on Iran, and Obama shot back with the accusation that Romney’s investment portfolio included shares in a Chinese company that does business with Iran. It is a depressingly petty and small-minded argument. And Obama’s big campaign theme for the final weeks? His “Romnesia” comedy routing. As a BBC reporter at MSNBC, of all places, sums it up:
It’s so far from what it was in 2008, right? When he was talking—in this stage in the campaign two weeks before the election and he had all that momentum and he was talking about all the things that he was going to do in the country. And that was an agenda campaign. I mean, he was promising to change the way Washington works, to change the way politics works here.
And now, I guess Chicago has said, “Hey, we think this Romnesia idea is your ticket to reelection, Mr. President, in the last two weeks.” I think you’re right—it’s sort of depressing, if that’s what it comes down to.
And it could get worse. Donald Trump is apparently threatening to reveal new details about Barack and Michelle Obama’s near-divorce in the 1990s, while bottom-feeding attorney Gloria Allred is trying to dredge up sealed records from a nasty divorce in which Romney testified on behalf of the husband, who was the founder of Staples.
So we could spend the last week of the election embroiled in the ugly details of divorce scandals. Great. (Update: the Trump announcement turned out to be a total fizzle.)
That is why I’ve been covering this election much more thoroughly in my RealClearPolitics newsletter, The Daily Debate, than in The Tracinski Letter. For the most part, the race has consisted of the kind of pure “horse race” politics that is RCP’s main focus, rather than a deeper philosophical debate.
And yet it won’t be meaningless. Despite his tack back to the center, Mitt Romney has already made enough commitments to entitlement reform—and to the leading advocate of entitlement reform, Paul Ryan—that this will still necessarily be part of his first-term agenda if he wins. As I have already argued, both as an economic issue and as a moral issue, this is a real and substantive agenda the deserves our support—even if Romney hasn’t been campaigning on it the way we would like him to.
There is only a little ways left to go. A victory for Romney, and a defeat for Obama, is very much within reach, but it is also far from guaranteed. We need to push a little harder for a little while longer.—RWT