In April 2010, more than a year before Mitt Romney formally launched his second presidential campaign, I asked the former Massachusetts governor what he wished he’d done differently last time around. His answer wound up revealing more about his plans for 2012 than his experience in 2008.
“I wish I had been more effective in being able to communicate the central rationale of my campaign, which is strengthening the economy, getting better jobs, raising incomes,” he told me. But “as a candidate I spent a good deal of time answering questions about social issues.”
Romney was saying, in effect, that if he ran again—and even then, everyone who didn’t reside under a boulder knew that Mitt was already dreaming up a sequel to 2008—he wouldn’t try to be all things to all voters. Instead he would immediately brand himself as Economy Man and cling to that brand for the rest of the campaign.
He did, he has, and it has made all the difference. Twenty months later, on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, I attended a pair of 11th-hour events that showed how well Romney’s approach has suited this year’s peculiar Republican race: Mitt’s own speech at a Competitive Edge warehouse in Clive, and the rally of his once-inevitable rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, at the Hotel Pattee in Perry.
The two congregations had a lot in common: same red-white-and-blue banners, same high-wattage sound systems, same country-rock soundtrack. (Rick chose George Strait’s “Heartland”; Mitt prefers “Born Free” by Kid Rock.) But the similarities stopped there.
What was remarkable about Perry’s event was how all-over-the-place it was, as if his campaign were simply trying to touch every Republican base, to stroke every erogenous zone, before the clock struck midnight. There was some maudlin musical warbling, courtesy of one of the Gatlin Brothers; there was some red-state solidarity, courtesy of Govs. Bobby Jindal (Louisiana) and Sam Brownback (Kansas). When Perry finally took the stage, he lurched from subject to subject like someone with a particularly acute case of political ADD. One moment he was recounting the military travails of his supporters Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL, and Dan Moran, a former Marine captain, and claiming, in hushed tones, that “what this is all about” is ”supporting these young men and women ... when they come home”; the next, he was reciting the entire 10th Amendment from memory; and the next, he was deploying Isaiah 6:8—“I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me”—as a metaphor for his run. It was all there: the military, the Constitution, the Bible—the whole Republican gumbo. But you never got a sense of who Perry was, of how he was different from that Generic Republican Candidate pollsters are always asking about, or why his fellow conservatives should vote for him instead of Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich.
Romney’s rally couldn’t have been more different. His toothy family—wife Ann and sons Tagg, Craig, Josh, and Matt—tried to warm up the crowd with anecdotes about life in the Romney household. But the candidate wasn’t going to be distracted. He immediately attacked President Obama for not “getting us working again,” and the rest of his remarks focused exclusively on matters of money: “a government that is borrowing too much”; the power of his “private-sector experience”; the need to make “America once again the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs”; his plans to “balance the budget,” to “get our tax code right,” to “throw out all the Obama-era regulations,” to “open up new markets for America,” and “clamp down on” China’s “cheating.” You get the idea. None of it was particularly novel or particularly specific. But all of it was about the economy, and all of it reinforced the Romney brand.
This, in a nutshell, is why Romney may very well win today’s caucuses—and why Perry, who was once considered the more formidable of the two candidates, is unlikely to finish in the top three. The internals of the new Des Moines Register poll tell the tale. As Nate Silver notes, the Register “asked caucusgoers to identify which candidate they favored in nine categories, ranging from being the most consistent to the most likely to defeat President Obama,” and “almost all the candidates had one or another of these factors working in their favor.” Gingrich was the most knowledgeable, Romney the most electable, Ron Paul the most likely to shrink the government, while both Bachmann and Rick Santorum received high marks for “relating to ordinary Iowans.” But Perry didn’t lead the field in any of the nine categories. As Silver puts it, “his brand has become poorly differentiated from the other Republican contenders.”
Monday’s rallies were a reminder that it didn’t have to be this way. For all his focus, Romney, in person, was clearly the less compelling, the less viscerally appealing, of the two candidates. His remarks were frantic, almost harried; he seemed eager to check his boxes and get offstage. At times he jammed so many numbers into his speech—“$787 billion,” “8 percent,” “25 million people,” “$4 billion,” and “three times as much” in the first few sentences alone—that he began to sound like a walking, talking quadratic equation. And when he tried to strike a sympathetic note with “people who are looking for work,” it came off as tinny and flat. Perry, meanwhile, was far clearer, and far more confident, than he ever managed to be during the debates; when he spoke about his faith, his states’-rights ideology, and his admiration for our men and women in uniform, it was with the perfect pitch and precision timing of a born raconteur.
If this year’s Republican nominating contest were all about personality, as some reporters have posited, then Perry would still be riding high. But it hasn’t been. Instead, the GOP race, much like, say, the music industry, has been defined by niche branding. A talented consultant and turnaround artist, Romney recognized early on that in a crowded, confused field, he didn’t have to overcome his charisma deficit; he simply had to identify the electorate’s most widespread concern—the economy—and corner the market. That’s why Perry, a candidate who once seemed destined to appeal to the entire spectrum of Republican voters—the religious conservatives, the Tea Party types, and the business community—is about to fade into obscurity, and why Romney, a candidate whom 70 percent of the GOP has yet to cotton to, is, amazingly, on the verge of clinching the nomination. This year, in this Republican Party, you don’t need 70 percent of the vote. You just need a few more percentage points than any of the other niche players.