We have now witnessed the penultimate phase of Mitt’s moderate makeover tour.
He pleaded nolo contendre in the final presidential debate—perhaps wisely because his comprehension of foreign policy evidences all the depth of a sound bite. Every time he’s touched Libya, for example, he’s been burned—and that night, even as he all but endorsed President Obama’s foreign policy, he occasionally strayed off script with stunning observations such as the claim that Syria is Iran’s opening to the seas. Mitt, ever heard of the Persian Gulf?
Previously he had pursued the exploitative path he had foreseen in a little-noted part of the notorious “47 percent tape.” After referring to Jimmy Carter’s failed hostage-rescue mission, in which eight U.S. service members died, he told the assembled plutocrats: “If something of that nature occurs, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity.” I suspect his last round of debate prep included the warning that the president could clock him with that quote if he renewed his push on the Libyan issue, which had stunningly embarrassed him a week before when moderator Candy Crowley had told him he was wrong—that the day afterward, Obama had called the killing of the American ambassador a “terrorist act.”
Something else, however, was operating here and in all three debates.
The Obama strategy of defining Romney over the summer as an out-of-touch, job-destroying financial manipulator—of, by, and for the rich—was so effective that the Republican nominee had to use the hours when the whole nation was watching to re-sculpt his image. He partially succeeded in that first encounter in Denver—partly because the president, for whatever reason, let his opponent prosecute a narrative brazenly at odds with his past record, in business and in the Republican primaries.
In their town-hall meeting, a very different Obama punched hard instead of looking like a punching bag—and even more, Romney suddenly found his two strategic objectives at war with each other. He couldn’t be Mitt 3.0—the moderate governor who became the “severely conservative candidate,” but needs to edge back toward the acceptable middle—if he was a hard-right neo-con caught mining political capital from a national-security crisis. Thus the muted Mitt in the foreign-policy debate: he couldn’t be both moderate and on the attack. So in every survey afterward, Obama was the winner—most saliently, in the CBS poll of undecided voters, where the president prevailed by more than a two to one margin.
The Republican spin was that it didn’t matter—that because their candidate had already reset the race, we were in the midst of a Romney “surge” and he was on the road to victory. This argument became the new heart of Mitt’s moderate makeover. He can’t afford to emphasize his policies; he avoids details and specifics because they would doom him almost across the board—from taxes to Medicare to education cuts. Instead he updated his message of the campaign as referendum: if you’re dissatisfied with the economy, give me a try; after all, I’m acceptable now.
The “surge” story largely if briefly captivated a press corps craving a close race and intrigued by a potential upset, Romney and his advisers had added an after-burner to their narrative, claiming victory before counting of the votes in the apparent belief that the spin will birth the result. Romney strategist Stuart Stevens even spoke of the campaign in the past tense: “Obama … might have had a shot.” The bloviating John Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor who was tossed out as chief of staff in the first Bush White House, foretold “close to 300” electoral votes for Romney.
This tack has been tried before, and I was there. In 2000, Karl Rove announced that George W. Bush was headed for a commanding 320 electoral votes—and was even competitive in California. Rove spent millions of dollars on commercials there and dispatched his candidate to stump the Golden State. In the Gore campaign, we refused to take the bait. We didn’t spend a dime on ads, even after the Rove spin spooked leading California Democrats into insistently calling our headquarters and demanding that we respond. Jonathan Chait, who’s written an incisive piece on the episode, has the right word for it and its bastard stepchild, manifest in the Romney campaign. It’s a “bluff.” Gore carried California by 1.3 million votes—and Bush eked out the narrowest of electoral edges only by stealing Florida with an assist from a nakedly political Supreme Court.
The Obama enterprise, too, remains relatively undisturbed by Romney’s recycling of the Rove ploy. For one thing, it frightens Democrats, but it also motivates them. It’s almost part of the Obama GOTV operation. Here’s a typical example from the flood of emails in any inbox: “Looking for reassurance… Could it be that everything we fought for… is going to be for naught? We have to work harder.” In fact, that’s the plea in most emails coming out of Obama headquarters and other Democratic committees: We could lose—so do more and give more.
Obama’s strategists knew the Romney spin was and is as ephemeral as the air it’s spoken on. For Romney may be the last refuge of a candidate who dares not be candid—who has to hide his beliefs and commitments in a fog of political presumption. But if you see past the smoke and mirrors, you will understand that Barack Obama continues to command the electoral landscape.
After the debacle in Denver, I argued that the structure of the race hadn’t fundamentally changed—and wouldn’t unless the president faltered again in the second debate. He didn’t. He let Romney into the game; state and national polls did tighten—mostly because undecideds who lean Republican and voted for McCain moved to Romney. They would have anyway.
Now the surge is receding—and contrary to the conventional verdict, the second and third debates not only stemmed Romney gains, but restored Obama’s advantage. Even the outlier of outliers, the flawed Gallup tracking poll, which recently accorded Romney a seven-point lead, shows him only three ahead in a seven-day average—which means the numbers will almost certainly shift further toward the president as the bad days drop out of the average. Gallup drives news, but it’s increasingly discounted by political analysts. The Greenberg survey for the Democracy Corps—a rare survey in which 33 percent of the respondents were reached on their cellphones—has Obama leading 49 to 46 percent.
It’s not a big lead—and never will be. But the president has other big advantages that will prove decisive. And here is where the fundamentals haven’t changed.
The outcome will be decided in the battleground states—and here Obama has many more paths to a 270 electoral-vote majority. For example, he could lose Ohio—and still get there if he took New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Colorado. But Ohio is anything but lost; after dispensing with the GOP-infected numbers of Rasmussen, and the figments of the fly-by-night pollsters, the president has a consistent margin of 4 to 5 percent—and is at or near 50 percent.
Similarly, in the new PPP data, he is five points up in Virginia with 51 percent of the vote. In Nevada, Mark Melman, who almost alone called Senator Harry Reid’s 2010 triumph, shows Obama eight ahead. One of Republican Governor Brian Sandoval’s top advisers has bluntly predicted: “Obama will carry the state.” The adviser may not keep his job, but the president will take Nevada.
So it goes across the swing states, even in Florida and except in North Carolina. But there, the Obama campaign has registered a legion of new voters—and everywhere it has the most in-depth, technologically sophisticated, and well-staffed turnout operation in history. That can and will make the difference where the contest is close. The president has twice as many field offices as Romney—800 of them across the battlegrounds. And Romney’s are afterthoughts—late to the game, run by the Republican National Committee, and without the rich, data-based voter targeting of the Obama effort. A GOP operative in Colorado says he adds two to four points to the president’s poll numbers in the state because Obama has a better organization.
Finally, Romney can run, but he can’t hide—from the Bain ads that are on the air again in the Midwest, from the relentless Obama focus on the choice between a candidate who stands for the middle class and a candidate who favors the 1 percent. Now he faces the prospect of explaining his 1991 testimony in a post-divorce lawsuit against the founder of Staples—which has been unsealed by a court in Boston. This could be the next chapter in the story of a business career that was his calling card, but has become a political liability.
Stuff just keeps happening to Mitt Romney. He has to flee the press to avoid answering questions about the only Senate candidate he’s made an ad for—Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, who suddenly dominated the national news with his repugnant divination that a pregnancy due to rape is “something God intended.” Romney can’t bring himself to pull the endorsement ad; he’s too afraid of his own right-wing shadow. He can’t escape the extremists in his party with whom he fellow-travelled as he pandered his way to the nomination.
Thus the gender gap widens—and the moderate makeover unravels. Mitt is mired in the mid-20s with Hispanics, who heard him say “illegals” should “self-deport.” He’s far behind with younger voters—and the Obama organization will get them to the polls, with an assist from Romney’s position on social issues like reproductive rights and marriage equality. The restrictive voter-ID laws have mostly been struck down, at least for this year, and blacks and other minorities won’t be blocked from casting their ballots. Blue-collar workers in the Midwest can’t forgive Romney’s opposition to saving the auto industry—and they don’t trust the man from Bain. Even his lead among seniors is being eroded by his plan to replace Medicare with Vouchercare—and to raise the cost of their prescription drugs.
That’s why enough of the battleground states, where the campaign is being fully engaged, will be Obama country on Election Night. The brief silly cycle of spin about the impending, even inevitable Romney presidency is ending.
Let the Romneyans enjoy their premature claim of victory. It’s the only one they’ll have.