It’s E-Day + 2, two days since President Barack Obama squeaked out a second term. For many in my circle of friends and my broader network of Republican activists, I am watching as they, like me, go through the Küber-Ross Model Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There is something cathartic about going through the process together, but if the process does not give us the opportunity to learn then we will be right back here in two and then four years.
Most of us are passed the Denial Stage. That happened when we woke up Wednesday and Ohio hadn’t miraculously flipped (and we lost Florida and Virginia). Most seem to be in the Anger, Bargaining or Depression stage.
A few folks are still there, but most of us are also passed the Anger Stage and have moved into the Bargaining Stage. They can’t save this candidate, but they are saying things like, “Fellow Americans, we promise to get rid of the ___________ (Conservative /Moderate /Libertarian /Pro-Life /Talibaptist /Tea Party /Establishment) wing of our Party if you will just like and vote for us again.
Ron Paul’s supporters have been stuck in this stage since last spring.
We are a coalition party. The moderates cannot win without the conservatives and visa versa. Let’s kick out the third of the party that’s hard religious right. Say good-bye to 90% of your grassroots volunteers. Or let’s kick out the 1/3 more moderate economic conservatives, who tend to be the wealthier members of the party. Say good-bye to 90% of the money you need to buy those signs for people to wave.
In our nation, each party has a base of more or less 40% of voters. About 40% of this country is Democrat and 40% is Republican. We fight for the 20% in the middle. So to win, we need all of our 40% and 10% + 1 of the middle. If you tell 1/3 of your base to take a hike, then you are starting off with 26.4% with the goal of getting better than 10%+1. Fact is, even if you get all 20%, you have still lost. If you really want a party that’s socially liberal and economically conservative, you already have one…it’s called the Libertarian Party. So let’s get out of the Bargaining Stage as quickly as we can.
It’s easy to tell those still in the Depression Stage. They are saying things like, “America is doomed!” or “We’ve lost our country.” or “I’m leaving and immigrating to Australia!” but mostly it’s the “lost” and “doomed” stuff. I think many conservatives will be in the Depression Stage for a while.
I went through all of them myself and hit acceptance after lunch yesterday after a co-worker and I spent way to much of our discussion on the History Channel’s run-up to Armageddon as we near the Dec. 21 Mayan Doomsday.
As this is not the first campaign I’ve ended up on the losing side in (I have been everything from volunteer to paid staff to candidate), nor will it be the last – barring a Mayan doomsday-, it is easier to put things into perspective and try to rationally look at what happened and try to learn from those mistakes.
In the end, there were several key factors that worked against Romney that made a win in any circumstance, even for the best possible GOP candidate, an uphill battle, even against a President who is as extremely out of touch with the American electorate and has presided over the longest period of fiscal gloom and doom since the Great Depression as President Obama has.
While the missteps of senate candidates like Todd Akin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) did not help, they are hardly the cause of Romney’s defeat and are only claimed to be by those whose own political biases want to make reason. Nor do I believe that but for Hurricane Sandy Romney would have won.
Every campaign comes down to two things…history and tactics. You need to understand the history in order to know what tactics to deploy and how to deploy them. Sometimes history is your voter base. You need to know and understand what makes them tick (history) to craft your message to them (tactics). However, the more history is against you, the less likely you are to overcome it, even with the best tactics. While this is not by any means an exhaustive list of why Mitt Romney’s campaign failed, it begins to put things into perspective and will hopefully help Republicans be more understanding of what happened because if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.
So what history was against Mitt Romney?
1. In the history of our nation, only 10 of 44 presidents have lost re-election: Adams, Adams, Van Buren, Cleveland (who came back 4 years later and won a second term), Harrison, Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter, and Bush. Most presidents who only served one term don’t run for a second term. LBJ was running for a full second term in 1968 until he lost the first few primaries and dropped out. So, it is still an uphill battle to beat a President. Also, most of these Presidents who lost faced serious primary challenges. George H. W. Bush had Pat Buchanan and David Duke. Carter had Ted Kennedy. Ford had Reagan. Taft had Roosevelt who formed his own party when he couldn’t beat Taft for the nomination, etc. So we start off with the fact it is very hard to beat an incumbent President who chooses to run for re-election and you basically need him weakened from an intra-party fight.
A lot of people complained that we did not have the best options to choose from in the primaries, that a lot of our best choices chose not to run. With this record in history, it is easy to see why.
2. Some archetypes work better than others. Americans DO NOT ELECT ROBBER BARONS. We elect Vice-Presidents and Governors and Generals and Senators, we do not elect corporate executives. Mitt Romney was a governor, but both he, and his opponent, defined him as the corporate executive making him the Robber Baron archetype that is consistently rejected by American voters. That archetype has never worked for a candidate for President.
While we say we want government run like a business, we never elect the business exec. Americans DO want their President to be “Main Street” and not “Wall Street.” It did not matter that more Wall Street dollars actually do flow to Democrats, and, in particular, Obama. Mitt Romney looked and talked the part while Obama and the Democrats have no problem, with a wink and nod to Wall Street, looking like they were biting the hand that feeds them. Romney’s attempts to soften that image were far too often ill-crafted and seldom used. Okay, so he gave away his father’s inheritance AFTER getting his Harvard law and business degrees? If any election was going to buck the trend, it would have been this one. It still didn’t work. We want Mr. Smith in Washington, not Gordon Gekko.
The problem Romney had about telling his story as governor was two fold, he governed to the left of where he was running for President and he had one term, which brings me to my next point…
3. People who cannot win their home state cannot be elected President. If the people who know you best won’t vote for you, why should anyone else? Only James K. Polk in 1844 was elected despite losing his home state of Tennessee. We knew from Day One that Romney could not win Massachusetts and would not even try. More than that, he served one term because he would not have been re-elected. Also, this is the first time since 1968 that neither the candidate for President nor Vice-President carried their home state. That ticket lost too.
We can see that history made this campaign an uphill battle for the GOP, but there were also historical factors working for Romney. Those advantages were blown with a failure in tactics that a campaign team as experienced as his should have prepared for, but failed.
1. “Do not let your opponent define you before you can define yourself.” Is a basic rule of political campaigning. If your opponent has money and you don’t, that’s what will happen and it will be very hard to over come. Bush did that to Kerry in 2004. Obama did that to Romney this year. That’s why you really need a primary opponent to beat up on the President while you run your own. Both Obama and Romney raised primary money. Romney spent it on knocking off Gingrich and Santorum while Obama spent it slamming Romney. If Obama had a primary challenge, he would have little money left to attack Romney. By the time the debates rolled around, millions of Americans tuned in simply to see if Romney was able to successfully hide his horns and tail for the cameras, especially if you lived in a swing state.
2. And What was Romney’s Plan Again? As a candidate, you must clearly define a reason for voters to fire the incumbent and hire you. Really…what was Romney’s road to economic recovery? I could not clearly articulate it and I consider myself somewhat in the know. Lower taxes for some? Higher for others? Cut PBS? Clear as mud. What was Romney really going to do with Obamacare? The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Yes, it’s the economy, stupid, but what is the choice? “I’m a turn-around expert…trust me!” Yes, I did, but I can tell you Polk lost Tennessee in his election. How many Americans can even tell you that, or even tell you who Polk was? If I can’t tell you what Romney’s plan was, how could your average voter know? Campaigns have to stay on message, but they also have to articulate that message. Creating 12 million new jobs is not a plan, it’s a promise. Creating 12 million new jobs is also not much of a promise when there are 23 million unemployed or underemployed. Regardless, we had no idea how he was going to get there.
God bless Paul Ryan for being the only one who I actually ever heard say that the plan was to cut taxes like Reagan and Kennedy. Of course that line went nowhere because Joe Biden practically went orgasmic at the opportunity to plagiarize Lloyd Benson’s line and tell Ryan, “you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
I don’t know what happened to Obamacare as an issue. Swept under the rug because if we went looking for it, we might also find Romneycare too, maybe? Romney and his campaign team’s continued defense of socialized medicine meant Obamacare was off the table. The central issue that led to the largest gain in history by the GOP in 2010 was nowhere to be seen in 2012. Mitt Romney did not have to placate the voters of Massachusetts by telling them socialized medicine is really good. They obviously love Romneycare so much and are so grateful for it that they rejected him 61% to 38%.
3. Negative campaigning WORKS EVERY TIME. As much as we complain and moan about negative ads, they work. Let me say that again…negative ads work. Of course Romney knew that too. Romney brutalized his GOP opponents, but then went soft on Obama. The same guy that Santorum ran ads against because he was slinging so much mud spent the rest of the campaign afraid to say anything bad about his Democrat opponent. If I were Newt Gingrich I would be livid. Romney walked into the general election campaign like it was a college debate competition. Obama came ready for a street fight.
Say what you want about “cowboy” candidates like Reagan and George W. Bush, but, when it comes time to face down Putin or Ahmadinejad, I want the steely glare of the Outlaw Josey Wales, not the President of the High School Chess Club. Obama has that mastered, but more in a Chicagoland-Al Capone manner. The trouble with Obama is he uses it with our allies rather than our enemies. With them he’s Bobby Fischer. If you can’t stare down Barack Obama, how in the world are you going to do it with the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Putin?
Nice guys finish last in politics. Mitt became nice when it mattered most…and lost.
4. Cabal of a campaign team. In 1996, as a college junior, I was a student leader for both Lamar Alexander’s primary campaign and Bob Dole’s Presidential campaign. In 2000, I was with Bush’s team in Georgia. In 2004, I was on Bush’s state steering committee and a coalition leader for the campaign in Cobb County. In 2008, I was first one of five statewide coordinators for Fred Thompson and managed Cobb County. When Thompson dropped, I was on Mike Huckabee’s steering committee and eventually ended up 11th Congressional District Campaign Chairman for McCain-Palin. In 2012…nothing. And I wasn’t the only one. Romney had his core Georgia group and, with limited exceptions, if you weren’t there from day one…of 2008…you were not there. I heard the same thing across the country, even in swing states. I may have thought we were all paranoid, but Christopher Ruddy in his column in NewsMax noted Romney’s staff was, “insular and arrogant.”
The result was a trickle down of, not necessarily arrogance, but definitely an insular mindset. Small, closed campaigns simply do not win. Front gates belong on country club neighborhoods, not on political campaigns.
In the end, these were not the only reasons Romney lost, but they were some of the key reasons. Others in articles and on air will go over other reasons like technology, get out the vote (GOTV) and even more factors. Like in 2008, everything will be questioned for weeks, months, and even years to come. Some will advocate a move right, and some a move left. The talking (and in my case typing) heads will pontificate and debate, forming grand conclusions. I tend to believe that nine times out of ten, usually the simplest answer is the correct one…Romney lost because he ran the worse campaign. Could he have beaten those historical trends I mentioned? Of course. That’s why I gave an example of a time there was a different narrative (Polk lost Tennessee and was still elected. Hoover did not have a primary challenge and was still defeated). However, when you are running against history, you better not just bring you’re A-Game, but your A+ Game. Romney’s campaign, at best, brought their B- Game.
While Mitt Romney was not successful in this endeavor, as a person, he has still won me over. The image of him can be shattered by how he responds post-election, but I believe, fundamentally, he is a good and decent person and I hold him in much higher esteem now than I did a year ago. I thank him for the time he did give and for trying to make this campaign about a vision, even if it wasn’t enough. I’m disappointed he wasn’t able to get the rest of America to believe that he was someone our nation should take a chance on.
In the beginning of this election cycle, I thought almost anyone could beat Obama. During the primaries I told people that I believed it didn’t really matter who we nominated because a yellow dog could have beaten the President. I’m not sure if Mitt Romney left that dog on his roof or Obama ate it, but I was wrong. This was going to be a tough election and, in the end, the perfect storm of factors…including an actual perfect storm with Sandy…merged resulting in defeat. But in our 24/7 news cycle, the next election begins the day after. So instead of E-Day +2, for those of us who live, eat and breath this stuff, it’s T-minus 725 days and counting and time’s wasting. It’s time to get to Stage 5 and accept the result and move on…we have an election in less than two years to win.
Attorney Jason Shepherd is a veteran of more than 40 political campaigns, some winning, some losing, in five states over the past two decades. A former campaign staffer for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman John Linder, Jason was the Republican nominee for Georgia State House District 37 in 2010. The one thing he’s learned though almost 20 years of campaigns is there is still more to learn.