|A Good Man and a Good Campaign, but a Candidate Who Could Not Win|
By Timothy H. Lee
Thursday, November 08 2012
Imagine if someone assured you on Election Day morning of the following: Barack Obama would barely exceed John McCain’s 2008 popular vote total, and he’d win almost 8 million fewer votes among whites, 1.5 million fewer votes among blacks, 4 million fewer from women and almost 2 million fewer from voters aged 18-29 than he did in 2008. With that knowledge, you’d conclude that a Romney win was in the bag.
So what went wrong?
After all, the 2012 presidential election appeared ripe for the taking for Republicans.
Romney merely needed to flip five swing states – Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana – that Obama narrowly won in 2008, an apex year for Democrats and a trough year for Republicans, plus one more state, no matter how small, to become President. That seemed like a fairly easy task, since there was no way that Obama would maintain his lofty 2008 support following four years of economic mismanagement, trillion-dollar deficits for the first time in history, terrible right-track/wrong-track popular opinion, rhetorical gaffes, record duration of unemployment above 8%, a credit downgrade, lack of international improvement and Republican renaissance.
Yet Obama somehow managed to eke out a win. Although the electoral vote total suggests a comfortable Obama victory, he didn’t even match the 2004 reelection performance of George W. Bush, whom Democrats consider singularly incompetent. Obama’s share of popular and electoral support declined from his first election to his second, which was a first for a reelected president since Woodrow Wilson, and only the third in history.
In other words, this was no mandate for Obama’s ideas or job performance.
The problem is that Romney did even worse. Surprisingly, he actually fell even further short of McCain’s 2008 support.
The problem? It was probably the candidate himself.
That is not in any way, shape or form an insult against Mitt Romney. He is a successful, moral, charitable, kind, competent, industrious, articulate, intelligent man. Moreover, that’s not to suggest that any of Romney’s primary competitors would have outperformed him, or even come close. Most Republicans would agree that he was clearly the best of a lackluster 2012 primary lot.
But elections ultimately boil down to candidates. And Mitt Romney proved an insufficiently marketable one.
Entering 2012, he was not a man immediately familiar to Americans in the way of war hero John McCain, nor was he charismatic or inspirational in the manner of Obama or even someone like Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Consequently, that left him vulnerable to the possibility that Saul Alinsky-type tactics from the Obama campaign could define him in the minds of unfamiliar voters as a cold, heartless plutocrat.
And that’s precisely what happened.
All the way back in April, when Romney was not yet able to deploy sufficient resources to define himself or counteract attempts to dehumanize him, Obama saturated swing state markets.
That was a difficult enough headwind for Romney in a period of economic despair, particularly in Rust Belt states like Ohio. But two completely unforced errors on Romney’s part acted to cement that negative image.
First, there was Romney’s New York Times commentary misleadingly entitled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Although Romney actually advocated federal support and didn’t demand liquidation of General Motors or Chrysler through bankruptcy, that was extremely damaging in Ohio. Then came revelation of Romney’s “47%” video. Every candidate commits rhetorical errors – recall Obama’s “You didn’t build that!” But that footage played perfectly into the hands of Obama operatives pounding the plutocrat line.
Together, they allowed Obama to turn the election into a referendum on Romney as much as himself. Then, Hurricane Sandy provided a timely interruption of Romney’s momentum and brought curiously effusive praise from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Additionally, Romney’s GOP primary comments on immigration allowed Obama to tarnish him among a growing Latino electorate.
In such a close election, these obstacles probably proved decisive in crippling Romney as a candidate.
Some pundits claim that Latino aversion toward Republicans was and will continue to be decisive. But consider that as recently as 2010, Florida Governor Rick Scott prevailed among that voting bloc, and George W. Bush won 40% of Latino voters.
Others suggest that Romney was too conservative for female and moderate voters. But Republicans maintained their strong House majority, and increased their state gubernatorial majority to 60%. That wouldn’t have occurred if voters were rejecting conservative principles. Also recall that 2010 saw very conservative candidates like Senator Pat Toomey succeed even in Democratic strongholds like Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, that same year, candidates like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell failed miserably.
That illustrates the critical importance of the individual candidate.
Romney can be proud of who he is, and of the campaign he ran. Among other things, his debate performance in dismantling Obama before the nation will be remembered for decades, and reflected his work ethic and intellect.
But because election losses demand sober assessment and reevaluation going forward, it’s important to understand the basis of those losses. In this case, it wasn’t a popular mandate in favor of Obama or his policies, and it wasn’t rejection of conservative ideals.
Although it’s no slur against Mitt Romney, it simply appears that he wasn’t a candidate capable of making the sale against a shamelessly cynical incumbent.
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