Tag Archives: Romney strategy

Bill Kristol Is Wrong – Why Campaign Strategy Is Overrated and Why Romney May Win

As I write this post, panelists on Fox News Sunday, led by Bill Kristol, are debating the issue I discussed in my last post, namely, whether Mitt Romney’s single-minded focus on the economy is an effective strategy for winning the presidential race. In the discussion, Kristol is doubling down on his Weekly Standard editorial (headline: Dukakis, Kerry…Romney?). In it, Kristol writes:  “Remember Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004)? It’s possible to lose a winnable presidential election to a vulnerable incumbent in the White House (or in the case of 1988, a sitting vice president). So, speaking of losing candidates from Massachusetts: Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he’s running?” Kristol’s specific complaint is that Romney’s campaign has failed to lay out an alternative strategy to Obama’s for resuscitating the economy.  Other movement conservatives have targeted the Romney team’s mishandling of the Court ruling that the individual mandate is constitutional under Congress’ taxing power.

Let me take up the Court ruling first.  As I argued in the latest “Professor Pundits” piece with my colleague Bert Johnson, despite the initial wall-to-wall media coverage following the Roberts’ ruling, that decision is not likely to  have much impact on the presidential race.  According to Gallup only 6% of voters consider health care to be the most pressing issue facing the nation. This is slightly below the average number of Americans who cite health care as the number one issue dating back to the start of 2001, and far below the more than 30% of Americans citing it during the 1993-94 debate over Clinton’s health care policy, or the 26% referencing it during the debate over Obamacare (hat tip to Mo Fiorina for the Gallup link).

So, while I don’t doubt that the Republicans (but perhaps not Romney himself) will try to score points this fall with the Court’s ruling that the mandate is a tax, it’s not likely going to resonate with very many voters, particularly after the Court’s decision recedes in public consciousness.

The second reason I cited for why health care won’t matter is because most voters are much more concerned about the economy.  When asked by Gallup to name the most important issue facing the country, 72% mention some aspect of the economy – jobs, the budget deficit,  lack of money, or general economic issues – compared to only 6% citing health care.  Another 12% cite dissatisfaction with government.

But what about Kristol’s complaint that Romney is not offering a viable alternative economic plan? Again, this misreads how voters go about choosing in a presidential election.  For the most part, this election will be a referendum on the Obama administration’s handling of the economy. Most voters don’t get down in the weeds of the respective candidates’ economic plans; instead, they make broad-gauged estimates of the state of the economy, and decide based on their assessment whether they want to continue with the incumbent or kick him out.  That decision turns more on evaluations of Obama’s record to date than it does on the specifics details of any economic plan Romney may propose. Indeed, Romney’s best strategy, contrary to Kristol’s advice, is to keep the focus on Obama and his economic record, rather than inviting scrutiny of any alternative plan.  In this light, consider the memorable slogans of the previous campaigns that successfully unseated an incumbent president.  In 1980, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter by simply asking, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

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Note that in this admittedly brief clip Reagan doesn’t bother touting the details of his own program – the thrust of his message is to focus on Jimmy Carter’s record.  And, in fact, most polls suggested a majority of voters were closer to Carter on the issues than they were to Reagan.  But when it came to casting their ballot, that mattered less than did their assessment of Carter’s handling of the economy.  Similarly, in 1992, “the economy, stupid” became the mantra of the Clinton campaign – few people remember that the Clinton war room also posted two other campaign themes: “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”

Now, that strategy may yet fail for the simple reason that Obama is a first-term president.  This means, as indicated by this Gallup Poll, that many voters still hold George W. Bush more responsible for the current state of the economy than they do President Obama.

This is why many presidential forecast models include a time-in-office variable signifying how long the current incumbent party has controlled the presidency.  In 1992, when George H. W. Bush lost his bid for reelection, Republicans had sat in the Oval Office for 12 years.  However, in 1980, Carter’s presidency represented only four years of Democratic control, so history offers a mixed lesson regarding whether Obama will get booted after only one term.

Make no mistake. This election will largely turn on assessments of Obama’s handling of the economy.  To win a second term, Obama must persuade voters that the economy is heading in the right direction, and that he only needs more time to right the damage caused by his Republican predecessor.  As indicated by the Gallup poll above, however, the trend lines are going in the wrong direction for the President, as slightly more than half of Americans now give Obama a “great deal” or “moderate” amount of blame for the state of the economy, compared to only 32% earlier in his term. This total includes 51% of independents who now give most of the blame to Obama.  And come November, George W. Bush is not going to be on the ballot.  If the next quarterly GDP report shows a shrinking economy, and if the coming monthly jobs reports indicate job growth is stagnant or even declining, it won’t matter much what strategy Romney pursues: Obama will join Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush as one-term presidents.

Romney Campaign In Disarray? Pay No Attention To That Story!

What’s wrong with this front page?  Today’s Boston Globe leads with this article titled “Romney Advisers Facing Criticism” which purports to reflect the views of “prominent conservative Republicans” that Romney is “bungling the presidential race” by focusing too much on the economy. Matt Viser, who wrote the Globe article, opines that, “The intraparty dissent has been simmering for several weeks”, but that it reached a crescendo in response to the mixed response from the Romney campaign regarding the Supreme Court’s recent ruling regarding the individual mandate.  Although Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom initially said that Romney disagreed with the Court’s ruling that the mandate was a tax, Romney later appeared to reject that characterization when he said that he accepts the Court’s ruling that the individual mandate penalty is, in fact, a tax.  That flip-flop prompted Viser to quote another media outlet – the Wall St. Journal – in characterizing the “stuttering response by the Romney campaign] to health ruling amateurish.”    To support his assessment, Viser quotes three Republican pundits – Bill Kristol (no fan of Romney’s), Laura Ingraham and former Newt Gingrich consultant Rick Tyler.  The thrust of their collective criticism is that the Romney strategy of focusing on the stagnant economy has, in Kristol’s words, “gone from being an annoying tick to a dangerous self-delusion.”   Tyler, the former Gingrich consultant, concurs: “There clearly is a lack of an overarching driving force and message in this campaign.”   Viser’s summary assessment based on the comments of these “prominent conservatives”?  “[T]he fact that former Massachusetts governor is still taking fire from Republicans several weeks after he had appeared to unite his party could be a problem as the campaign prepares for the furious final few months.”

Anyone reading this front page story could be excused for assuming that the Romney campaign was in disarray and that it was shedding support among the Republican Party’s conservatives.  And yet, just below this story, in an easily missed paragraph, the Globe posted a small blurb headlined “Fund-raising haul”.  The brief paragraph notes that Romney “raised more than $100 million in June, by far his best total” and directs readers to page 9 for a more detailed discussion of the story. Readers who bothered to follow the link would learn that in pulling in more than $100 million in campaign contributions last month, Romney had outraised Obama for the first time and at the same time smashed his previous best fundraising total set in May.  Moreover, it was only the second time a presidential candidate had raised more than $100 million in a single month.  The headline story notwithstanding, this is not evidence of a campaign failing to unite the party faithful.   Instead, as my colleague Bert Johnson discusses in our latest pundits’ video, Romney’s record-breaking haul is a sign that he is consolidating his Republican base.

Rather than “bungling the presidential race”, an objective look at the evidence indicates that the Romney campaign is picking up steam, particularly in light of the most recent economic report that shows job growth in June was essentially stagnant.  But there are no quotes in the Globe story about Democrats who are critical of the Obama campaign strategy!

Look, I understand that the Globe is a liberal-leaning paper that has never shown much love for Romney dating back to the time that Mitt was governor of Massachusetts.  But the reality is that Viser’s emphasis on campaign strategy, buttressed by quotes from well-known partisans, will be repeated by media outlets of all political stripes during the coming months.  The fact is that journalists faced with the need to produce copy on a daily basis will inevitably focus on the horse-race aspects of the campaign, with an emphasis on controversy.   The tendency will be to personalize stories, by drawing on quotes from prominent party activists, rather than discussing more impersonal but more telling indicators, such as campaign fundraising, that may more accurately reflect the fundamentals that will determine who will win in November.  Unfortunately, the media tendency to personalize campaign stories, and to emphasize the horse race, personalities and controversy, is only going to accelerate in the next few months.  This may be entertaining – but it will not be very useful in gauging the relative strengths of the two major party candidates as we head towards November.  Bill Kristol may not agree, but all indications are that Romney’s single-minded focus on the economy is yielding huge – more than $100 million – in dividends.  If that’s “bungling” the campaign, Romney needs more bunglers.