Press Piles On

Why Mitt Romney Is Trapped By His Negative Narrative

Howard Kurtz on how Romney can’t escape his narrative of failure—and why that could undermine Obama.

Jewel Samad, AFP / Getty Images

Not since George McGovern has a trailing presidential candidate failed to get even a semblance of traction week after frustrating week.

But unlike the Democratic senator who lost 49 states, Mitt Romney is on track to make this a close election.

So what gives?

Dissecting Romney’s various weaknesses has become a cottage industry, fueled by a sense of incredulity that he isn’t running a stronger race. This conviction that Romney is blowing it is reinforced by a never-ending cascade of polls showing him behind, especially in the eight or nine pivotal swing states.

It is a closed loop that always produces the same result: Romney is a poor candidate; Romney is losing; that proves he’s a lousy candidate, and here are the CBS/New York Times/NBC/Wall Street Journal/ABC/Washington Post/CNN/Fox numbers to buttress that view.

Any Romney attack on President Obama is treated as an obvious sign of desperation, as someone trailing in all those polls must be on the verge of collapse. Politico is even speculating that Obama could win an Electoral College landslide.

As for Wednesday’s first presidential debate in Denver, if Romney doesn’t knock Obama to the canvas, according to this view of the game, he is history.

After all, his foreign trip flopped, his convention flopped, he flips and flops, his 47 percent video was a disaster, and by the way, he’s an awkward, out-of-touch plutocrat. Because if he wasn’t tripping all over himself, he’d surely be gaining in the polls.

David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, tells me, “It can have a depressing impact on your team if you get pummeled by the polls.” But he sees a potential downside for his team as well: “There can be an inflated sense of confidence that has an impact on turnout. People think the election’s done. Well, it’s not. It’s going to be a close election. You don’t want people to be irrationally exuberant.”

Alex Castellanos, a former Romney adviser, had a two-word reaction to the candidate’s sagging poll numbers: “That hurts.” Since people are “social animals,” the Republican consultant tells me, a snapshot of eroding support fosters the impression that “it’s not safe to go to the Romney watering hole. You have an electorate looking for change—they didn’t like the watering hole they were at—but Romney hasn’t made the case that he’s got a better place to go.”

And the daily dose of polls keeps buttressing that message. This isn’t an argument against horse-race journalism. Everyone wants to know who’s going to win. It’s an argument against interpreting every facet of the campaign in light of the poll-driven perception that Romney is heading for defeat.

Try this thought experiment: imagine that Obama, not Romney, was 5 points down in the national polls, and up to 10 points behind in such battlegrounds as Ohio, Florida, and Virginia.

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Journalists would be asking these questions: why isn’t the president connecting? Are people sick of his speechifying? Is the economy too heavy an albatross? Have the Libya attacks damaged him? Why has he played it safe? Why hasn’t he offered more specifics about a second term? Why hasn’t he dumped Axelrod and Jim Messina?

Yet the president, while admittedly making few errors, has largely skated in recent months. Here’s how Ross Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, put it the other day: “There are plenty of stories circulating that might be expected to hurt Obama’s political prospects, but given the press’s horse-race biases none of them are powerful enough to pull the spotlight away from Romney’s flailings: They’re either big but not new enough (the lousy economy) or new but not big enough (the administration’s shifting Libya stories) to break through the campaign coverage.”

But don’t go blaming all this on liberal media bias. Some of the sharpest criticism of Romney’s stumbling style has come from such conservative stalwarts as Bill Kristol, Peggy Noonan, Erick Erickson, and David Brooks, who have described the Republican candidate as inept, inauthentic, and worse.

Romney’s inability to change the narrative of failure has become a defining feature of the 2012 race, one that not even a three-day infomercial in Tampa could alter. He has a knack for the self-inflicted wound, belatedly releasing his tax returns on a Friday afternoon just as he was trying to dig out from the devastation caused by his secretly recorded fundraiser remarks. (What presidential candidate, even in private, says of 47 percent of the country that “my job is not to worry about those people”?)

Perhaps the core failing of his campaign is the inability to drive a message. Romney has started to do a slew of television interviews, but he almost never comes up with a jab or sound bite that lingers beyond the day’s news cycle. What’s the point of going on 60 Minutes if you’re not putting your opponent on the defensive? He got more attention for declaring himself a Snooki fan on Kelly Ripa’s show than for anything he’s said recently about Obama.

Yet the press is not especially receptive to anything that is not a gaffe, attack ad, unscripted moment, or freshly minted poll that supersedes the previous day’s poll. Remember when the campaign was supposed to be about Obamacare, after the Supreme Court ruling? Or Medicare, after the Paul Ryan pick? Or foreign policy, after the Benghazi assault? Each subject dissipated into the ether.

The media’s attention deficit disorder has made it harder for an issue-oriented candidate to break through the static, especially one as bland and cautious as Romney. That is the challenge of running for president in the Twitter age, and it’s one that the former Massachusetts governor seems uniquely unsuited to overcome.

But Romney may have one thing going for him. The media’s horse-race approach means it needs a race to cover. The static nature of this campaign is draining its drama. The situation is ripe for a Romney comeback tale if he can blip up a few points in the polls.

Don’t take my word for it; Axelrod says the “biorhythms” of campaigns make that inevitable.

“Now the narrative will shift” toward Romney, Axelrod says. “He’ll undoubtedly do well in the debates, the polls will narrow—they would have narrowed naturally anyway—and people will say, ‘Now it’s a race.’”

If so, much depends on what happens in Denver. Ordinarily, a challenger can “win” a debate by holding his own on the stage with an incumbent. But Romney needs more than that. With five weeks to go, he has to change the prevailing story line, one that has branded him a loser. And that, from the moment he effectively clinched the nomination, is something Romney has been unable to do.