It’s a serious question. On the basis of fundamentals, the race should be a squeaker. The Yale economist Ray Fair’s prediction model, which ignores the opinion polls and just looks at economic factors, currently puts Obama’s share of the popular vote at 49.5 per cent, implying that Romney would almost certainly get a narrow majority in the electoral college and win the election. Because the margin of error in Fair’s forecasting equation is three per cent, he isn’t really predicting a Romney victory; he’s just saying that the race should be close, really close. As of today, it isn’t.
According to the Real Clear Politics poll-of-polls, which averages out all the most recent surveys, Obama is leading by more than three points. Since the start of the year, Romney hasn’t led the poll-of-polls. He has only drawn level once—immediately after the Republican convention. And in many of the swing states, such as Ohio and Virginia, the survey data looks even worse for him. He could still come back, of course, but at this stage it will take something dramatic to change the dynamics: a foreign-policy disaster, a terrible piece of economic news, a big slipup by Obama in the debates.
What’s gone wrong for Romney? Here are seven possible explanations:
1. The Romney campaign is incompetent. In a column a couple of days ago, Peggy Noonan, the former White House speech writer for Ronald Reagan, said publicly what many Republicans have been saying in private for months: “It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one. It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It’s always been too small for the moment.” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s mercurial campaign manager, is the piñata of the moment, with Republicans blaming him for everything from failing to settle on a clear message, hogging too much responsibility inside Team Romney—he’s in charge of speech-writing and advertising, as well as overall strategy—and bungling Romney’s speech at the convention. Stevens “sold himself as a kind of mad genius,” Noonan noted acidly. “I get the mad part.”
2. Romney is incompetent. No big-name Republican has come right out and said this, but many are increasingly convinced of it, especially following the emergence of the “forty-seven per cent” video. Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, called Romney’s comments on the video “stupid and arrogant.” In a column in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove, who has been one of Romney’s biggest supporters, noted, “There’s little tolerance among Republican donors, activists and talking heads for more statements by Mr. Romney that the media can depict as gaffes.” It seems that almost every week lately Romney has had to walk back, or clarify, something embarrassing he’s said.
3. It’s all the G.O.P.’s fault. A month ago, on the eve of the Republican convention, I wrote a post saying that Romney’s main handicap wasn’t his campaign manager or his tendency to trip himself up but the fact that he was running as the representative of such an extremist and unpopular party. “It’s a protest movement rather than a party of government,” I wrote. “Even in the most favorable circumstances, it’s barely electable at the national level.” That still seems right. Even after his problems, Romney’s approval ratings (low forties) are running about ten points ahead of the G.O.P.’s ratings (low thirties).
4. Americans like Obama, or the idea of Obama. The high hopes of 2008 faded long ago, but outside of right-wing talk radio and other diehard Republican circles, there isn’t much overt animosity toward the President. To the contrary, most people seem to respect his calm approach and his repeated offers to work with the Republicans even though they have turned away all his overtures. Romney has tried to counter Obama’s personal popularity by arguing that he’s a nice guy who isn’t up to the job of President. So far, this argument doesn’t seem to be resonating with moderates and independents.
5. It’s the economy, stupid. Yes, the jobs picture is pretty dismal. But the unemployment rate, at 8.1 per cent, is a full percentage point below what it was at this time last year, and other economic indicators are looking up. A year ago, on September 20, 2011, the Dow closed at 11,408.66. On Thursday, the market closed at 13,596.93. In twelve months, it has risen by nearly twenty per cent. House prices, which have been depressed for years, are also picking up in many areas, as are housing starts. In Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Michelle Meyer, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said: “The housing recovery has indeed started.” For the one-in-four working-age Americans who are still out of work or working part-time because they can’t find full-time employment, the Great Recession is still very real. But for people in a job, many of who own their own home and have a 401K, the financial outlook has improved substantially over the past twelve months.
6. It’s all demographics. At the end of last year, Ruy Teixeira—the Washington-based political scientist who has long argued that the rising number of Hispanics, working women, highly-educated yuppies, and other Democratic-leaning groups in the electorate would deliver a stable governing majority to the Democrats—characterized the 2012 election as “Demographics versus Economics.” As of now, demographics may be winning out. On the national level, most opinion polls show a double-digit gender gap in Obama’s favor. Meanwhile, in formerly Republican states like Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, the Hispanic share of the vote is rising rapidly, and Obama is running ahead despite heavy spending by G.O.P.-leaning groups.
7. Things aren’t really so bad. The contrarian case for Romney is that, despite all his goofs, he’s still doing fairly well in the national tracking polls—in Thursday’s Gallup update, the two candidates were dead level at forty-seven per cent—and he’s still got time to turn around the swing states. Karl Rove, while acknowledging Romney’s recent missteps, argued in his column that at this point in the 1980 campaign Ronald Reagan was trailing Jimmy Carter in some national polls. Referring to this week’s brouhaha over the fund-raiser video, Rove called it “a classic example of the commentariat investing moments with more meaning than they deserve.”
This one doesn’t withstand scrutiny: Romney’s campaign is in a world of trouble. Rove heads the biggest G.O.P. Super PAC, American Crossroads, and he played a significant role in persuading the Party to accept Romney as its candidate. He has a strong interest in talking up his prospects. And even he conceded that Romney “must reassure voters he’s up to the job of being president.”
The other explanations all have merit—and aren’t mutually exclusive. In any election, fundamental factors, such as demographics and the economy, are important. As Teixeira explained in a lengthy interview I did with him back in June, the country is changing so fast that Obama can afford to lose among white men by up to twenty percentage points and still garner enough votes to win. The lacklustre economy is still the biggest thing working in Romney’s favor, but rising stock prices and the nascent recovery in the housing market appear to be having an ameliorating effect.
Obama’s personal popularity also shouldn’t be underestimated. In an interesting piece earlier this week about why Obama is winning, Politico’s Jonathan Martin quoted Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist, who said: “People like his personality, like his family, like his story and what he says about the country just by having been elected. And I think the other piece is that people really do believe he got dealt a really bad hand of cards. They’re willing to give him more of a chance.”
Still, Romney can’t entirely blame his woes on his opponent. After all, most Americans thought Jimmy Carter was a decent and admirable person, but that didn’t stop them from voting him out of the White House. When it comes to the job he’s doing, Obama still has low ratings. In Thursday’s Gallup tracking poll, forty-eight per cent of people disapproved of how he’s handling the Presidency and forty-six per cent approved. Numbers like these should make him vulnerable to attack.
Which brings us to Team Romney. From the very beginning, the Obama campaign has out-thought and outfought Stuart Stevens and his crew, relentlessly depicting the G.O.P. candidate as a clueless and heartless plutocrat. Such a strategy shouldn’t have come as any surprise to anybody, least of all the folks in Boston. Ted Kennedy used it in his narrow 1994 senatorial victory over Romney. And it’s pretty similar to what George W. Bush’s campaign did to John Kerry in 2004: hit him early and hard, shaping views of him before his own campaign can get its side of the story across. And yet for months the Romney campaign seemed powerless to respond. It took until the convention for the Romneyites to produce some former employees of Bain Capital to defend its activities in public. That was six months too late, at least.
For far too long, Romney and his advisers believed banging on about the depressed economy would be enough to ensure victory. But candidates challenging sitting Presidents, who have many advantages, need a positive message as well as a negative one. For months and months, the Romney campaign failed to put together a proper jobs program, with some numerical targets and some rough costings—something outside economists could take seriously even if they disagreed with it. At times, as in the fund-raising video, Romney argued that the mere removal of Obama from office would lead to spontaneous surge in business confidence and hiring. On the eve of the convention, he finally did unveil a five-point economic plan, but it’s still so vague that even Rove, in his column in the Journal, urged him to “deepen awareness of how each element would help families in concrete, practical ways, and offer optimism for renewed prosperity.”
To be sure, being tied to the G.O.P. isn’t helping Romney. Indeed, many of his current problems can be traced back to the primary, when he felt obliged to shift far to the right on issue after issue: immigration, abortion, income-tax cuts. (In his original economic plan, the one with fifty-nine points, there weren’t any.) There are many reasons why Romney’s original strategy of tacking gently right in the primary and then moving decisively back to the center didn’t work. But the main one is that today’s G.O.P. in all its manifestations—the House Republicans, the donors, the party activists, the single-issue groups, the think tanks, the conservative commentators—won’t stand for an overtly moderate candidate.
Ultimately, though, the primary responsibility lies with Romney himself. To misquote Karl Marx’s famous passage in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” men do not make history entirely as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves—but they do make their own history. Running against an incumbent President is never easy. Reagan faced a big challenge when he ran against Carter. Bill Clinton faced a big challenge when he took on George H. W. Bush. Both were skillful politicians who turned the objective circumstances to their own advantage. They both stood for something—Reagan for conservatism; Clinton for centrism—and they both knew how to get their message across.
Romney has a strong résumé. During his career at Bain Capital, Romney proved he was a first-rate investor and chief executive of a private-equity firm. In Salt Lake City, he demonstrated more leadership skills, working with a variety of constituencies to rescue the Olympics. As governor of Massachusetts, he showed he can run a state government competently and introduce some innovative policies, such as “Romneycare.” But politicians are in the business of getting elected, and getting elected President is the sternest test of all. Six years after setting his sights on the White House, Romney has yet to demonstrate he is an effective Presidential candidate.
The problems are many. Despite his reputation as a manager, his campaign appears to be somewhat disorganized and incapable of looking ahead, partly because of a failure to delegate effectively. Then there is his message, or the lack of one. Outside of a commitment to technocratic problem-solving, he doesn’t have a creed he can fall back upon. He isn’t even much of a technocrat. If he were, he would be running a Bloomberg-style campaign, promising to flout established orthodoxies, decide things on their merits, and, where necessary, flout his own party. Instead, he has buckled to the Republican right so many times, and reversed his position on so many issues, that he has undermined his reputation as a moderate. “Everything could always be tweaked, reshaped, fixed, addressed,” a former aide told Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, the authors of “The Real Romney.” “It was foreign to him on policy issues that core principles mattered—that somebody would go back and say, ‘Well, three years ago you said this.’ ”
Inconsistency isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw in a politician. But in order to justify all your dodges and feints, you need to be a good communicator. Romney’s prepared speeches are flat. He hasn’t mastered television. After more than ten years in politics, he has yet to develop the instinct for self-preservation that most politicians can rely on whenever they encounter a microphone. Rather than sticking to rehearsed answers, he has a tendency to wander off on tangents, saying things he hasn’t fully thought through. That’s what happened in his disastrous pre-Olympics interview with Brian Williams, and on the video from the fund-raiser.
Being careful about what you say in public, being polite to your hosts while travelling, making sure you don’t insult the voters whose support you are seeking: these aren’t high arts. They are basic demands of the job of being a politician; most city councilmen have mastered them. Romney hasn’t. Each of his gaffes, by itself, might be overlooked. Taken together, they signify something larger. Mitt Romney isn’t a very good politician. And that, in the final analysis, is why he is losing so badly.