Winning the Summer

Vacation Primary: Why Republican Candidates Win the Summer

Mitt Romney left the trail for a bout of family Olympics at his lavish getaway. But then, Republicans usually win this primary. Michelle Cottle on the Dems’ holiday gap.

Charles Dharapak

As the heat wave sizzles on, some 30 members of the Romney clan—Mitt, Ann, their five sons, the sons’ wives, and 18 grandkids—are kicking it this week at the family’s lavish summer home on Lake Winnepesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H. Mitt and Ann bought the 13-acre compound in 1997, and attendance at this annual weeklong retreat has become more or less mandatory. (Running for president is no excuse for skipping.) The days are chock full of recreational delights: swimming, biking, waterskiing, tennis, volleyball, basketball, and an evolving array of athletic competitions known as “the Romney Olympics.” Evenings feature long talks and lots of s’mores.

It is, in many ways, the picture-perfect holiday for a savvy pol: bucolic, family-oriented, tradition-bound, and not too glitzy. Indeed, if Mitt winds up in the White House, his Granite State getaway could save him considerable grief in the coming years.

A commander in chief’s holidays are always fraught. Be it brush-clearing in Crawford, Texas, or golfing on Martha’s Vineyard, presidential downtime opens a deep and predictable divide: Foes snipe that a responsible leader shouldn’t be gallivanting about when there’s a nation to run. Fans counter that all work and no play risks burning out the guy with his finger on the nuclear button.

The type of vacation a president takes, however, can make a difference in how shrill—and effective—the political opposition’s vacation-themed attack ads will be.

First rule of thumb, says veteran Democratic strategist Chris Lehane: “No wind surfing.”

No kidding.

Similarly, trips abroad are like painting a big ol’ bull’s eye on a president’s backside, as the Obama gals learned on their 2010 jaunt to Spain. This spring, nearly two years after the fact, critics were still touting the high price tag of the first lady’s European adventure. (And how many times did we see shots of her touring Marbella in that one-shouldered Jean-Paul Gaultier blouse?) In an actual election year, this sort of overseas frolicking would be political suicide.

Of course, domestic destinations carry risk as well. Particularly during a tough economy, hobnobbing with the rich and famous on, say, Martha’s Vineyard, the Obamas’ preferred summer haunt, can easily be spun as sticking your finger in the eye of Middle America.

Vacationing “on the Vineyard,” sneers Republican consultant Mark Corallo, adopting an upper-crusty, through-the-nose accent. “I’m mean, ack! How elitist can you get?”

Looking to short-circuit precisely this kind of attack, in the run up to the 1996 election, then-presidential adviser Dick Morris urged the Clintons to skip Martha’s Vineyard and go west instead. Heeding Morris’s polling data, Bill and Hillary spent their holiday in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in all its horsy, outdoorsy glory. Unfortunately, when Morris’s advice became public, the Clintons were buried under a wagonload of scorn for shamelessly poll-testing their personal time.

In recent decades, Republican presidents have had a decided leg up on their Democratic counterparts in the destination department simply because most already owned one (at least) vacation home. Nixon, Reagan, Bushes 41 and 43—all had family compounds to which they regularly retreated. Like most presidents, they were slammed for having the nerve to take time off at all. But their destinations didn’t provoke constant public debate. Democrats, meanwhile, have typically been left bumming a little borrowed time at a wealthy patron’s home.

So what’s an overworked chief exec without a preexisting summer home to do in the midst of an economic slump and a tough election.

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Corallo argues that Obama should just suck it up and skip a trip this summer. Or if he must go, says the Republican, “take your weekend at Camp David.” It’s the presidential retreat, he reasons. It comes with the job.

While considerably less harsh, even Lehane recommends keeping in mind some basic optics. “Try to make sure your vacation at least resembles the kind of vacation that most Americans can recognize.” (See windsurfing point above.)

All the better, adds Lehane, “if there is a serendipitous confluence between your vacation locale with swing states.”

Democratic consultant Donna Brazile agrees. Emailing from Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York, she quips: “This would be a perfect place—something for the kids, a golf course for the president and plenty of luscious gardens for the first lady. And it’s close to Pennsylvania and Ohio—two battleground states that matter.”

Then again, as nervous as the Republican money machine is making the White House these days, who knows how desperate Obama might get between now and August? Forget Jackson Hole or Lake Chautauqua. How about some smelting lessons in Scranton? Or a week at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn?

Whatever a president’s destination, says Brazile, “what matters is that they return replenished and refreshed.”

You’ll know the situation is really getting out of hand, says Lehane, “when candidates start buying vacation homes in Iowa.”