How Romney got it wrong

Collision 2012: Obama versus Romney and the Future of Elections in America, by Dan Balz, Viking, RRP$32.95, 400 pages

Many who followed America’s 2012 presidential election recall a moment when they thought the race had finally turned against Mitt Romney. For Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, it was as early as October 2011 when he showed focus groups a photo of a younger Romney and his Bain Capital colleagues waving wads of dollar bills at the New York Stock Exchange. “It was like, ‘Game over’,” Messina recalled.

Some cite Romney’s June 2012 overseas trip, which went sour after he raised doubts about London’s preparations to host the Olympics. “Mitt the Twit” was the Sun headline that greeted his touchdown in the UK. Others highlight the actor Clint Eastwood’s bizarre conversation with an empty chair that was supposed to represent Obama, on stage at the Republican convention in August 2012. “What? What do you want me to tell Romney?” Eastwood asked the chair. “I can’t tell him to do that ... He can’t do that to himself.” Romney’s campaign manager was so upset that he vomited. Eastwood was their primetime warm-up act.

Almost everyone would agree on the grainy video of Romney at a private fundraiser in May 2012 in which he dismissed 47 per cent of Americans as “victims” and people “who pay no income tax”. No amount of negative branding by the Obama campaign could improve on what Romney said. The footage leaked out just weeks before the election. Meanwhile, Romney himself partly blamed his defeat on Hurricane Sandy, which gave Obama the chance to look presidential just in time for polling day.

The 2012 campaign does not rank highly in terms of the quality of its debate. But in terms of wince-making material, it offers an embarrassment of riches. Dan Balz, a veteran Washington Post reporter who wrote The Battle for America, 2008, a best-selling account of that year’s presidential race, offers us an admirable sequel in Collision 2012. “If 2008 was inspiring, 2012 was often negative and nasty,” Balz writes. “By the time it ended most Americans were ready to say good riddance.”

Given the weak state of the US economy and Obama’s inability to bend Washington to his will, 2012 ought to have been a far closer contest. In the end, Obama took 51 per cent of the popular vote and 332 electoral college votes – an easy win. A year earlier, the statistician and political forecaster Nate Silver had rated Obama as the “slight underdog”. But for most of 2012, Silver stuck to the strong probability of an Obama victory. In retrospect, it is clear that Romney faced two crippling problems.

The first was the near manic mood of his party. For most of the long battle for the Republican nomination, Romney rarely polled more than a quarter of the vote. The Obama campaign dubbed him “Mr 25 per cent”. Right to the end, three-quarters of Republicans were searching for anybody but Mitt. A succession of outlandish rivals – from Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum – kept Romney on the ropes when he should have been greasing up for the big fight. Rarely have poll numbers yo-yoed so violently. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, went from 38 per cent to 6 per cent in six weeks. Tea Party activist Herman Cain went from 23 per cent to 3 per cent in even less time. All the while, Romney hardly budged.

Likewise, rarely have televised debates had such a big impact on the primaries. In one unforgettable moment, the air almost audibly rushed out of Perry’s campaign when he had a self-declared “brain fart” on the podium. Asked which three government departments he would abolish, Perry’s mind went blank. Rival candidates helpfully suggested Commerce and Education. The governor simply could not recall the third. Seconds ticked by. “Let’s see,” said Perry. Then he shook his head. “The third one. I can’t. I just can’t,” he said to his shoes. After another long pause, he looked up sheepishly and said: “Oops.” Twitter has rarely been more merciless. Nobody was in any doubt that Perry’s campaign had just died.

Then there was Gingrich’s insistence on spending some of his meagre budget targeting Chinese-Americans living in Iowa and voters with pets. The former speaker’s eccentric priorities – and his decision to take a two-week cruise in Greece just as the campaign was getting under way – prompted his entire team to resign in unison, which was a first in US presidential politics. Within months, however, Gingrich had bounced back to be the frontrunner. Perhaps it had something to do with his late-breaking plan to settle human colonies on the moon. More likely it was driven by the fact that his name was not Mitt Romney. And so on, right up until May 2012, when Romney finally took the crown, by now looking more like a dunce cap. It was Perry who best captured how much damage the primaries had caused. “This was the weakest Republican field in human history,” said the Texan. “And they kicked my butt!!”

Romney’s other problem was Obama. While Republicans were staging their circular firing squad, Obama’s team was building the most formidable, and well-funded, presidential campaign in history. Messina staffed its Chicago headquarters a year before Romney took the nomination. Early in the campaign, Messina told Balz that his favourite philosopher was the boxer Mike Tyson. “Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until you punch them in the face, then they don’t have a plan,” Messina said. “My job is to punch them [the Republicans] in the face.”

Perhaps the most damaging blow came between May and August of 2012, when Obama took advantage of Romney’s lack of funds to pummel him on the airwaves. In those four months, Obama spent $150m against Romney’s $50m. It was hard for Romney to recover from that. In the end, what counted was Obama’s ability to turn out his supporters in higher numbers than Romney’s – as Silver’s model had predicted. Much of the outcome thus boiled down to Obama’s superior organisation. His campaign was an astonishing feat of virtuosity. Yet in contrast to 2008, Obama’s message to voters was low key and often negative. In Balz’s words, 2012 was a status quo election: “America was still divided,” he concludes. “The election changed few minds.”

Edward Luce is the FT’s chief US commentator

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