2012 will go down as the year the Republicans proved wrong the theory that said a president could not get re-elected if the country faced high, persistent unemployment and slow growth.
Mr. Romney did considerably better than John McCain in 2008, but he failed to take advantage of Mr. Obama’s low approval rating and the country’s economic ills. Why?
The seeds of Romney’s failure can be found in the primary debates. Facing half a dozen challengers attacking him from the right, Mr. Romney took a hard line on immigration. Newt Gingrich was crucified for trying to avoid that pitfall, but Romney walked right into it. As a result, Romney won a lower percentage of Hispanic votes than either John McCain or George W. Bush. That cost him heavily in the battleground states.
Mr. Nice Guy
The second problem that showed up in the debate was his personality. Mr. Romney is by nature and by conviction a polite, considerate human being––too nice perhaps to be sent into battle against a veteran of Chicago style politics where it’s okay to lie as long as you sound convincing.
Romney did not fight back during the summer months when the Obama campaign painted him as a protect-the-rich vulture capitalist. Money may have had something to do with it, but after he failed to release his tax returns and was tarred with the 47% statement, he found himself in a deep hole at the start of the fall campaign.
In order to win the election, Romney had to dispel the image that he cared only for the rich and then convince people he had a plan that would help all Americans. He got off to a great start in debate #1, but the fact that Obama did so poorly may have given the Romney team a false sense of confidence. Whatever the reason, their man was not sufficiently prepared to go one-on-one with Obama in the town-hall format and then failed to attack Obama’s Benghazi cover-up during the foreign policy debate.
Instead of going toe-to-toe with Obama, Romney played presidential. Big mistake. That’s a strategy you employ when you’re ahead, not when you’re the underdog or tied.
Don’t Act Like Democrats
Republican candidates in the future need not act like Democrats––bribing special interests to get their votes. They must, however, speak to issues that impact Hispanics, seniors, etc. and where possible, take positions that address the concerns of those constituencies in constructive manner.
Mr. Romney failed to address immigration in a way that anyone found plausible. He dented the youth vote, but he did not fully disabuse seniors of the charge that he and Paul Ryan were going to gut Medicare.
On that basis I feel the Paul Ryan nomination was a mistake. In the end Ryan’s nomination appeased conservatives who were going to vote Republican anyway while doing nothing to counteract Obama’s characterization that Romney and the GOP care only about the rich. A better choice would have been Susana Martinez or Marco Rubio.
By the Numbers
Mr. Obama should consider himself fortunate to still be president. He won despite pulling 6.8 million fewer votes than in 2008, including roughly 1.6 million fewer votes from African-Americans. Had Mr. Romney won just 1.5 million of those who voted (or 1.18 percent of the total), he would have been the winner.
Cover-Up of the Cover-Up
The electorate was less than enthusiastic about Obama than in 2008 and it took an expenditure of $900 million attacking Romney to pull it off. The national news media helped Obama tremendously throughout the campaign, parroting the campaign’s accusations, downplaying Obama’s failures and then by giving President a pass on his handling of Benghazi, they prevented the cover-up from becoming the defining issue it should have been.
Some Republicans argue Romney lost because he was not a true conservative. Litmus test nominating almost may work locally, but it guarantees defeat on the national level. Others argue he waited too long to move to the center. Playing to the extreme during the primaries and then trying to move to the center during the general election is also a poor strategy because it leaves the candidate open to charges that he’s unprincipled.
What’s the answer? To win in 2016, a candidate must be willing to weather attacks both from the party’s extreme right and from the Democrats on the left. No individual should be expected to have an empty personal history closet. Rather she or he must be willing to explain the contents of that closet in a way that defuses any issue. Did admitting his youthful drug use cost Obama votes? No. But, did paying lower taxes than people with lower incomes hurt Romney? Yes, because he didn’t defuse the issue.
A successful candidate must foresee possible attacks and be prepared to deal with them. She or he must also have a clear, well thought out plan for the country. Romney was unable to convince enough people that his tax and budget numbers added up. Had he done so, he might have moved voters away from their social issue concerns to voting their economic self-interest.
The Next Four Years
How Obama handles the fiscal cliff problem will have a lot to say about where the country will be in 2014 and 2016. If he thinks he has won a mandate and won’t compromise with the Republican-controlled House, his party will take another big mid-term hit and the Republicans should be in good shape for 2016. If Obama adopts Romney’s platform of tax and entitlement reform coupled with spending control, he can create a legacy for himself and give the Democrats a chance to hold on to the White House and Senate. Time will tell.