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Mitt's Ham-Handed Campaign

By Jay Cost

So, Mitt is going to give that Mormon speech.

Is this a surprise? Of course not. His position in the Iowa polls explains the decision entirely. He's trailing Huckabee in Iowa. A few weeks ago he was up by 14% - and he wasn't going to give the speech. Now that he's down, the speech is back on.

This is par for the course for the Romney campaign, in my estimation. His candidacy has been the most transparently strategic this cycle. McCain is up? Go after McCain. McCain is down? Leave McCain alone. Thompson enters the race and seems a threat? Take a cheap shot about Law and Order. Thompson fades? Ignore him. Rudy is up? Go after Rudy. Huckabee is up? Go after Huck. You need to win a Republican primary? Make yourself the most socially conservative candidate in the race. And on and on and on.

If somebody asked me which candidate on the Republican side has won just a single election (in a year that his party did very well nationwide) -- I would answer Mitt Romney, even knowing nothing about anybody's biography. This kind of transparency is, to me, a sign of political inexperience. He's only won one election, and it shows.

I have written on this blog that political campaigns are a lot like movies. Movies are complete put-ons. They are not real. But movies that are well executed can communicate true themes that resonate with viewers. When they are poorly executed -- when the acting is bad, the script is formulaic, or the technical production is lacking -- the whole effect is ruined. Good moviemakers know that the audience is willing to suspend disbelief, but only to an extent. They need the artifice to be kept hidden.

The same principle applies to political campaigns. Political campaigns are almost completely artificial. At the same time, they speak to something real: what we should do in the next four years. For the real message to be communicated effectively, the artifice must be invisible. Otherwise, voters cannot suspend disbelief. They lose focus of the larger themes that the candidates are promoting, and instead begin to perceive them as manipulative -- saying whatever it takes to get elected. And, of course, elections are competitive marketplaces, which means that there is always an opponent to point out the other side's artifice.

This creates one of the great ironies of American politics. The candidates who are the best at politicking keep it hidden from public view. They thus seem non-political. The candidates who are the worst at it either do not know to or simply cannot keep it hidden, and thus seem hyper-political.

To appreciate this, compare the Kerry-Edwards campaign to the Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore campaigns. The perception that many voters had was that Kerry switched his mind as the opinion polls changed. This was due in part to his campaign's political ineptitude -- in particular Kerry's penchant for rambling extemporaneously. And so, a campaign that was lousy at politicking seemed to be hyper-political. The consequence was that the thrust of the campaign message was diminished -- in no small part because his opponent pointed out the "flip-flopping." Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore campaigns were as political as any other. The difference was that they were less obvious about it -- and, accordingly, seemed more authentic and natural. When Bush and Clinton spoke -- voters who could be persuaded by them (i.e. fellow partisans and independents) rarely apprehended the strategic motivations behind the speeches. And so, they were more responsive to the messages themselves.

Romney's campaign is, I must say, the least authentic seeming of any on the GOP side. Only John Edwards, the other candidate with but one electoral victory under his belt, matches it in this regard. And even Edwards has been doing better lately. Unlike Kerry-Edwards, the Romney campaign knows how to stay on script. That is not its problem. Its problem is that the script changes are obviously induced by its standing in the polls. There is little subtlety to the Romney campaign. Too much of what it does is obviously strategic. The "flip-flopping" on the Mormon speech is just another example of this general tendency.

I wonder if Republican voters -- who are quite worried about Hillary Clinton and her tactical "brilliance" -- will punish Romney for this kind of obvious strategery. Can a one-term governor who makes such rookie mistakes be trusted to handle the Clinton "machine?" Imagine what the Clinton campaign would do in response to such a clumsy maneuver in September, 2008!

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