Yes, I realize the campaign has now been over for nearly two months, and everyone is surely tired of talking about it, but from a political science perspective, I believe it is essential to discover the real reasons why Mitt Romney is not going to be the 45th President of the United States.
There have already been plenty of autopsies conducted on Romney’s campaign, and most of those findings hold at least some truth, but here is my take on what went wrong.
1. The Primary
Primaries were originally designed with the purpose of picking out the best candidate within a party in order to have the best shot in the general election. One could think of it like athletes competing to represent their country in the Olympics.
However, there has been an increasing tendency (especially within the Republican Party) for primaries to result in the most extreme candidate being nominated by the party. This is due to the fact that independent voters often do not vote (or are not allowed to vote, as in some states) in the Primary. Therefore, the more extreme candidate often prevails, even if she is not the most electable candidate.
Right now you are probably thinking: there is no way Mitt Romney was the most conservative candidate in the 2012 GOP Primaries! And you would be right; it would be pretty hard for anyone to be any further right wing than the goofballs like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum.
But those candidates’ influence on the primaries and the Republican Party was catastrophic. Mr. Romney spent the entire primary season attempting to appease the conservative base, at one time referring to himself as a “severe conservative”. No one in the party truly believed him, and most independent voters, who don’t generally like extreme candidates, were turned off by his actions. To continue the sports analogy, it is as if the athlete used steroids to increase his odds of going to the Olympics, only to be at a greater risk of being disqualified later.
Many conservative talking heads argue exactly the opposite: if Mitt Romney had been a true conservative and campaigned more aggressively on those principles, he would have won. They are wrong.
Mitt Romney’s favorability rating was underwater for much of the campaign, and he did not have a lasting net favorable rating until after the first debate, at which Mr. Romney did a complete 180 on many of his conservative positions. People liked “moderate Mitt” a lot more than “severely conservative Mitt”.
Hispanic Americans played a HUGE role in President Obama’s re-election, and as you’ve surely heard repeatedly over the past few months, they will continue to do so for years to come. Mitt Romney only received 27% of the national Latino vote. That is the worst a Republican Presidential candidate has ever performed among the voting block, and it is a continuation of the trend in the wrong direction for GOP hopefuls.
Let’s be clear; it was Mr. Romney’s self-inflicted wounds that led to him doing so poorly among Hispanics. During the primary, Romney took positions on immigration that even some in the GOP thought were too extreme. And his words “self deportation” also proved to be a thorn in his side come the General Election.
As it turns out, Mitt Romney would still not have won the national popular vote even if he had won the same share of the Hispanic vote as did George W. Bush (not an easy feat, as Bush received 40% of the vote). President Obama would have still won the popular vote, albeit by only 1.5 M rather than his actual 5 M vote buffer.
However, if Mitt Romney had won the same share of the Latino vote as either McCain or Bush in the individual states, he would have won Colorado and Florida, and other states, particularly Nevada, Virginia, and even New Mexico, could have been much more competitive. In total, this would have resulted in at least 38 electoral votes to flip to Romney’s column as well as the President devoting more time, money, and energy to shore up the other states.
3. The Running Mate
Mitt Romney surprised and delighted a lot of conservatives when he picked Paul Ryan as his running mate. Though a darling of the Tea Party, Ryan wasn’t well known at all on the national stage, and his positions on Medicare and other entitlement programs were, at least politically, extremely dangerous.
Many pundits claimed it was a “bold” choice, and perhaps it was, given Ryan’s positions on issues. But it was also a safe choice. Mitt Romney had already endorsed the Ryan budget, so having him on the ticket to explain it better was a logical choice. Both establishment and Tea Party Republicans liked Paul Ryan, and none of his positions would rub any conservatives the wrong way. Last, but not least, Congressman Ryan helped to put Wisconsin in play.
The first rule in picking a running mate is to do no harm. Essentially, the Ryan pick proved to be just that. While he may have excited conservatives, he didn’t really win over any independents (and he may have even turned some off). Therefore, the choice was a relatively neutral one.
The problem is that Mitt Romney needed a net positive response from his Vice Presidential pick. I’ve already talked about the merits of other candidates as well as the home-state implications for many. In retrospect, Marco Rubio seems like the most obvious choice. He likely would have helped a great deal with Latinos and would have almost assuredly handed Florida to Mr. Romney (thought the Romney campaign already believed they had Florida in the bag).
Ohio Senator Rob Portman or Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell each would have been good choices, though they each also had their own negatives. Ohio and/or Virginia would have then likely gone to Mitt Romney.
Finally, Condoleezza Rice could have been an excellent choice, and would have likely done more for the ticket than any other candidate. She would have narrowed Obama’s large margin among women and African Americans, and she would have given Mitt Romney a popular and well-known Republican with a solid foreign policy background. Assuming Romney had picked Rice, I believe he would have won Virginia, Florida, and Ohio.
With those three states, Mr. Romney would have only had to win one more of the following states: New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or New Hampshire. Of those six states, Colorado and New Hampshire would be the most likely to flip, particularly if Romney had done better among Hispanics.
Imagine for a second the Supreme Court had ruled that the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional. Though I had originally predicted that if such a scenario occurred, liberals would rise up to aggressively support Obama, it is now easy to see that was wrong.
Instead, the affirmation of the constitutionality of the law energized President Obama’s base and depressed Mitt Romney’s. Romney would not be able to say that Obama had wasted a year on an unconstitutional law. If the ruling had gone the other way, it would have been conservatives who were energized from a victory and liberals who were depressed. In the days and weeks after the ruling was handed down, opposition within the public waned and support increased.
5. Summer Money
There is an old adage in politics that in order to win, you must define your opponent before he can define himself. The President’s team took that lesson to heart, and in a bold and risky move, poured over a hundred million dollars into negative advertising during the early summer months.
The move caught Team Romney off guard. After all, it had never been done before; normally, a campaign will stockpile it’s cash until after the conventions. However, the Obama camp bet that the airwaves would be so saturated and people so sick of ads that the money would be better spent defining Mitt Romney early. After all, you only get one chance at a first impression.
For the most part, the ads were designed to neutralize Mitt Romney’s main argument for why he was qualified for the Presidency; his executive experience at Bain Capital. Obama’s campaign attempted to turn what should have been a positive into a negative.
6. The Economy Wasn’t All That Terrible
While we certainly aren’t experiencing 5% growth in GDP, the economy is also not in a place in which incumbents typically lose re-election. Sure, no President since FDR had ever won re-election with unemployment above 7.4%, but there are so few examples and elections that we can’t really use one number as a baseline for determining who will win an election.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight hit the nail on the head with his economic model. He combined several economic indicators, not just one, to help predict who would be favored to win in November. What he found was that the economic conditions actually favored Mr. Obama’s re-election. Mitt Romney’s sole argument was that he could turn the economy around. The problem is, the American people really didn’t believe it needed to be turned around.
Was It Inevitable?
You may be wondering now if Mitt Romney ever even stood a chance at winning. Absolutely. His team simply made several (large) strategic errors which, put together, led to his campaign’s demise.
Beginning with the primary campaign, Mr. Romney should have firmly planted his feet as a center-right Republican. He could have still lined up with the GOP on most issues, but he didn’t need to take such extreme views. He had the money and the weak challengers to win regardless of his positions, and so he should have.
Also, Mitt should have immediately come out with a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Nearly 50% of the GOP are in favor of some type of citizenship or permanent residency for undocumented immigrants, and it would have helped him firmly plant his foot in the door towards starting a conversation with the Hispanic community.
Mr. Romney should have chosen Condi as his running mate, for the reasons already listed above. I truly believe this would have been a game changer, and it would have peeled away votes from key demographics in the Obama coalition.
Finally, Romney should have done more throughout the summer to moderate himself and to run positive campaign commercials about him and his ideas for the country. He should have given positive examples of how his business career has helped thousands of people find jobs.
He did none of these things, and that is why Mitt Romney will not be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States this January.