What’s the explanation for Mitt Romney’s unparalleled breakout? A few weeks ago, the Romney campaign was regarded as dead in the water. The polls (with the exception of Rasmussen) had the campaign uniformly down, giving Obama up to half a dozen points. Voter interest was phlegmatic at best. A combined Chicago-media offensive appeared to have put Romney on the ropes. The consensus was that Obama would cruise to another victory, one paralleling and perhaps even exceeding his triumph over John McCain four years ago.
Today, little more than an electoral-cycle heartbeat later, the situation is utterly reversed. The big mo belongs to Romney. The polls, excepting a few weird left-wing holdouts of the Reuters variety, show Romney with comfortable leads ranging from 2% to 5%. The swing states are trending in his direction. The expectations of the GOP are those of the 3rd Army roaring into the Reich. As for Obama, he has displayed every sign of a man on the run – desperation moves, incipient hysteria, vast and expensive efforts to magnify minor Romney gaffes, appeals to Big Bird and Gloria Allred. His expression in the debates was that of a man facing his karma, more haggard and haunted with each appearance. At least one person in the campaign knows full well that the game is up.
This remarkable turnaround is unmatched in recent American political history, and as such, it requires an explanation. Not many have been floated as of yet. The most popular so far holds that Anne and Tagg Romney, acting as Mitt’s consiglieres, pushed aside most the campaign’s professional political operatives in a successful effort to encourage „Mitt to be Mitt.”
Everyone involved denies that anything of the sort occurred, and that may well be the truth. Occam’s razor applies to politics as much as any other field, and the simplest and best explanation in this case is that no large-scale change occurred within the campaign or without – that in fact, things are unfolding pretty much as they were planned to. That it’s happening this way because it was meant to.
There is no conspiracy, and there was no mistake. What we’re seeing is an example of straightforward campaign strategy in action. Romney has been underestimated as a politician all along. This is true to some extent of most politicians. The general view of politicians among political professionals, media, and academics is that they are simple folk who must be led by the hand and told what to say by trained and experienced pros, and in spare moments left in a corner with a shiny object to play with. This may be true in some cases (I recall a Jersey pol whom I encountered at a political meeting called to obtain support for his candidacy. His response to every question was to, without fail, turn and gaze at his campaign manager. He was elected, served three terms, and was considered quite a success by NJ standards), but it’s not true of Romney. As a successful businessman in a tough, complex, and cutthroat field, Romney learned as much about strategy, planning, and the vagaries of human nature as it is possible for one mind to hold, and he has not forgotten a single comma of it.
Romney’s stature as strategist was first revealed last spring, when he humiliated Rick Santorum on what should have been a day of triumph. On March 10, Santorum won Kansas overwhelmingly, gaining himself 33 delegates. Meanwhile, Romney had won in Wyoming, which gave him only 12 delegates. But Romney had sent his son Matt out to the Marianas, forgotten by all other candidates, including Santorum. Matt brought home a victory, which (along with a victory in the Virgin Islands), provided his father with another 22 delegates, ensuring that Romney actually outdid the „victorious” Santorum in overall gains. A few more lusterless debate performances, and Santorum was history.
After that, it was clear that the primary campaign was going to be a lot more interesting than many had foreseen. It was also clear that Romney was the man to watch – a politician who overlooked nothing, considered everything, and never missed a trick.
A pattern had already begun to emerge in the early months of the primaries. During the „anyone but Romney” phase that the GOP was going through, a new figure on a white charger was offered every couple weeks as the great hope to take down Obama the Usurper. Almost as soon as they popped up, down again they went. Presidential boots proved slightly too large for Rick Perry. Michele Bachmann was felled by a frustrating tendency for her words to outrun her thoughts, and Herman Cain by his purported eye for the ladies.
The two members of this squadron with real potential of taking the nomination were Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Both were similar – figures who appealed to the core conservatives of the GOP by means of images that were largely synthetic. Newt Gingrich was the Cincinnatus willing to leave his beloved historical studies to save the country, while Santorum was Ozzie Nelson. As is often case, these roles were a poor fit to the actual individuals.
That was the key element where Romney was concerned. As a businessman, he’d encountered plenty of figures who were all hat and no cattle, who talked a good game but were never around when it came time to toss some change into the kitty. It was in no way difficult to recognize many of the same traits in his GOP competition. So he treated them the same way he would have treated a hustler back in his investment days. He didn’t fight them, didn’t go blow for blow, didn’t so much as answer them back to any real extent. He let them each go through their schtick, until their essential hollowness was inescapable to all but the most hardcore true believers. He then, in the next debate, presented once again the basic Mitt Romney as the natural opposition figure. Newt and Rick both faded.
What Romney found himself facing in the presidential contest was very much the same thing – to a fault. Obama, the Illinois Redeemer, missionary from the Planet Zong, groveler to sheiks, reincarnation of FDR, and harbinger of the new age, was bogus enough to make Gingrich and Santorum look like avatars of authenticity. Romney’s problem was that a large number of voters had bought into one facet or other of this multifaceted political entity back in 2008. The possibility existed that enough voters would remain entranced to sweep Obama into another term full of crazed spending and anti-constitutional mischief.
Obama was also a devotee of the permanent campaign. Though instituted by Bill Clinton, this political methodology could be said to have been perfected by Barack Obama himself, whose entire life has been one single lengthy campaign. In practice, the permanent campaign meant simply never to stand down, to remain in campaign mode at all times, to begin active campaigning as early as the close of the midterms, and essentially campaign, by one means of or another, every last week of the ensuing twenty-four months. Not a moment could be wasted, according to this interpretation. The permanent campaign was the new normal. Anyone who let so much as a week slip through his hands would inevitably lose.
The difficulty with this theory was that nobody had ever bothered to actually demonstrate its validity. It was taken as a given. Clinton won – but against figures like Bob Dole, with the manly assistance of H. Ross Perot. Joke elections of that type certainly cannot be said to have been a fair test of the thesis.
Evidently, Romney does not accept the concept of the permanent campaign. He essentially gave the late summer months to Obama, to the despair of the GOP, sneers from the Dems, and bewilderment from the political pros. Much as he did during the primaries, Romney let Obama take center stage, well aware that he wouldn’t accomplish anything with the time and opportunity he was being given, because he couldn’t.
Obama capered. He took the messiah routine to the point of burlesque. He turned himself into a caricature of Mr. Hope and Change, not grasping the facts that it was no longer 2008 and that no one was looking for a savior anymore. His campaign, the national left, and the kept media carried out relentless attacks on Romney, none of which ever stuck because Romney never did anything to draw attention to them.
By the time the debates rolled around, Obama had used up all his ammo and had become one of those pop items nobody wants to see any more of – last year’s hit sitcom, a burnt-out singer, an actress on her fifth or sixth breakdown. So it goes with messiahs who hang on too long.
Romney may have been assisted by events, but luck favors the well-prepared. The Benghazi terrorist raid forced the Obama campaign to release the „47%” tape at least a month prematurely. They no doubt intended to use it during the last week of the campaign, when it would have the greatest effect, but were forced to throw it in as a desperation move to halt the bleeding over Libya. That it failed to do, along with proving a dud at ruining Romney’s reputation. It’s merely a footnote at this point. (Note that nobody – not a soul, right, left, or center – criticized either Obama or his party for the breach of privacy that footage represented. Nobody bothers any longer. It’s now an accepted truth, like gravity, mosquitoes in summer, or darkness at night: coarseness, grubbiness, and illegality are what the Democrats do.)
After that, Obama had nothing left to throw. In the first debate, Romney took him apart, as he had long intended to do. From that point on, the Obama campaign was in free-fall.
Romney has realized something about the endless campaign that far more sophisticated and experienced figures had overlooked. Namely, everything that happens before the final two months is little more than preparation. It’s the final stretch that counts. Why spend your money and waste energy and effort during the summer months, when nobody is paying attention? Obama was similar to a boxer who works himself to abject exhaustion during the run-up to a championship bout, only to flop over on his face on entering the ring. Romney, on the other hand, paced himself, prepared judicially and well, and remained fresh and ready to go the distance.
So he crushed Obama in the first debate; cruised through the second, despite a coordinated attempt to upset him (there is no criminal or civil penalty for the act carried out by Candy Crowley in cooperation with the Obama campaign – so why would they hesitate? Anybody?); and maintained a cool and benign presidential mien in the third, a visage on which Obama was not able to leave so much as a mark. Before the entire country, Romney transformed Barack Obama into an importunate child, which is better than he deserves, and may well be enough.
Romney is now ahead in the only polls that actually count (5 pts. up on Gallup, 4 pts. on Rasmussen), leading among independents, tied or ahead in almost all the swing states, and making serious inroads in several voting blocs long since written off and belonging to the messiah – women in particular.
Most of the political world of the early 21st century has forgotten the basics – the basics that Romney has never neglected, because he could not afford to. Romney treated the campaign the same as he would have treated a new business back in the ’80s or ’90s: you learn everything about the industry you wish to invest in from the ground up. You visit the factory floor, you talk to people at all levels, you understand all there is to know before you put in a dime. That’s how he approached politics. By grasping the basic rules, the basic schedule, the basic rhythm, all of which have been set aside, to one extent or another, by most political technicians.
If he brings this off, if he is elected on November 6, Mitt Romney will stand as the most masterly political strategist of his epoch. He has not forgotten what others have not yet learned.