Years ago I worked on a political campaign in Michigan. We were losing, badly, but our campaign manager didn’t believe it. To him, every devastating setback was a secret boost to our efforts, every sign of failure proof of our imminent victory, every poll that hurt us was rigged in favor of the other side. “They aren’t going to know what hit them. We’re right where we want to be.” This was the constant refrain. A number of people on the campaign, especially the young and inexperienced, believed him. The rest of us didn’t make many sudden movements when he was around. Still there was something endearing about his total, damn-all-the-evidence conviction. He owned his crazy.
A similar phenomenon is happening in this year’s election—except it’s not exactly clear which side has gone, as we used to say, Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I do, however, have my suspicions.
The other day I was asked what the Mitt Romney campaign could do to “regain momentum” after Hurricane Sandy. I was taken aback. Don’t you know, I retorted, that Mitt Romney is on the verge of one of the biggest landslides in American history? Fox News fixture Dick Morris told us just the other day that Romney was even headed for a seemingly improbable win in Pennsylvania. The right-leaning RealClearPolitics lists a half-dozen recent polls in the state. Which of them have Romney ahead? Oh, none of them.
On Sean Hannity’s program, an “expert” on Ohio predicted a Romney win in the state of 5-7 points. What poll shows this? Just one—from a Republican pollster—out of eight taken in the last week.
Karl Rove says Romney has the edge in the overall vote on Election Day and in his hedging way seemed to predict a Romney triumph. What polls show this? Again, almost none of them. Most in fact show a slight edge for Obama. The lone standout is Gallup, which for the past few weeks had shown a single-digit lead for Romney. If Gallup knows something the rest of the polling world doesn’t, it will be a major news story and Gallup will cement itself as the pollster of record as it once was in its glory days. If not, what Gallup is doing to Republicans is cruel. Today they cling to those numbers tighter than Katie Holmes to her divorce lawyers.
Now in GOP circles there is boastful talk of Romney “expanding the map” into New Jersey and Michigan and Oregon. What polls have him ahead of the president in any of those states? Oh … well, I think you’re seeing my point.
Even looking at the websites that “unskew” the polls in Romney’s favor, not a single one has shown the former governor with an electoral college lead over the President. Several sites, however, have Obama clearing 270 electoral votes, often with room to spare. What is propelling Team Romney and their cheerleaders in the media appears to be wishful thinking, not empirical evidence.
If any of these hopes turn do in fact come true, then the vast majority of pollsters and media outlets in America owe the nation an apology. And who wouldn’t love to see that? But if in fact President Obama is on his way to re-election, then it is must be asked: If the GOP cannot defeat a weak incumbent in the midst of an economic climate like this one, can they ever win a presidential race again? For two election cycles in a row, an “Etch-a-Sketch” candidate blessed by the Republican establishment, and crammed down the throats of rank-and-file voters would have lost. After hundreds of millions of dollars in forgettable commercials and get-out-the-vote drives had been spent. What, Republicans must ask, has become of the GOP?
That question, as it turns out, is relevant even if Romney does win in a landslide. In that event, he faces a problem. Ever since the Bush years, and I should know because I was there, the GOP has adopted an “us versus them” mentality. If you aren’t on our side all the way, you are a traitor. The Bush administration said just that, basically, of George Will, William F. Buckley, Robert Novak—any conservative who opposed them on the war in Iraq. Since that time, an entire culture has emerged within the GOP where supporters are told half-truths or fed wishful words and expected to believe them true lest they too be banished, mocked, or blackballed on TV.
In the 2012 primary, Republicans were told Mitt Romney was an arch conservative —“severely conservative” in the candidate’s own words—even though the facts were quite to the contrary. Candidates who intruded on the Romney coronation—and I should know because I worked for one—were going to ruin the election, were nutty, or sell-outs, or fools. Romney would beat Obama not with a strategy or a plan but because the American people had rejected Obama en masse. It was a fait accompli. Never mind the fact that the president retained a relatively high favorability rating, as measured by a number of pollsters, including St. Gallup of NeverWrong himself. Obama was hated because they wished it was so. So they decided it was so. And then it was so.
How much better it would have been if Mitt Romney ran for president as the guy he really is—a pragmatic businessman with some conservative instincts instead of Calvin Coolidge The Second. How more formidable a GOP campaign might have been if its strategists viewed Obama as a likable, formidable foe, instead of the epitome of all evil in the modern world who the country was clamoring to fire. Then the GOP could have assailed his competence not his morality or patriotism.
If the GOP loses to Obama—AGAIN—we will undoubtedly hear a litany of excuses: Hurricane Sandy revived the President. The economy improved. The mainstream media conspired against us. The jobs report numbers were “cooked.” Oh and somehow Obama’s birth certificate comes into play. I’m not sure how just yet, but Donald Trump will tell us.
But that’s not the truth. The truth is that the GOP, to paraphrase a prominent Republican, needs to see the world as it is, not as it wishes it to be. Maybe, if Romney does win, he can teach that lesson to his party. But he won’t.