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Why Romney Failed

By Tom Bevan

The corpse of Mitt Romney's campaign for president isn't yet cold, but it's never too early to start picking over the bones. What happened? Why was a man who in many ways seemed so perfectly suited for the role of president unable to break through in a year that provided the most wide open race in recent history?

There were a number of factors that contributed to the failure of Mitt Romney's campaign. The first, and most obvious, is that Romney's initial year-long push to frame himself as a social conservative was undercut severely by his '94 run against Ted Kennedy and his '02 run for Governor. No one suffered as much from YouTube moments this year as Romney, and in addition to undermining his credibility on social issues they also stuck him with the reputation as a flip-flopper who appeared willing to tell audiences whatever they wanted to hear.

Looking back, I'm sure the Romney brain trust thought that establishing Mitt's bona fides on social issues was the smart play, given that their main competition in Iowa at the outset of the campaign was Rudy Giuliani, who clearly couldn't appeal to social conservatives, and John McCain who wasn't - and still isn't - terribly well liked by members of the base and wasn't a particularly good fit for the electorate in Iowa.

It seemed Romney the buttoned down businessman had planned for every contingency, except one: Mike Huckabee. The exceptionally gifted speaker with the Mayberry charm proved to be the kryptonite to Romney's well oiled, deep pocketed campaign. Huckabee's presence in the race exacerbated Romney's core weakness and presented evangelicals in Iowa and beyond with a stark choice: why settle for someone repackaged as a social conservative when you could have the real deal?

Romney had always planned on shifting the focus from social issues to his business background, a transition that would have been much easier had he not lost Iowa. As it turned out, the calendar worked against Romney, as did the fractured and wide open Republican field. In the end, Romney ended up waging a two front war: fighting on social issues for the evangelical vote in Iowa against Huckabee to the very end, and battling on the economy and a message of change against a resurgent John McCain in a much more secular environment in New Hampshire.

Thus Romney's pivot came too late, and once again he was a denied a victory in New Hampshire by being matched against a more authentic candidate possessing a more powerful connection with the electorate. Despite the fact Romney was the Governor of neighboring Massachusetts for four years, or perhaps because of it, New Hampshire voters found McCain the more appealing choice, and with that vote the last vestige of Romney's early state strategy disintegrated.

Romney thought he'd found his voice in Michigan beating back McCain with a message of economic optimism, but it turned out to be an illusion. He and his campaign were shocked when the exit polls in Florida revealed Romney lost to McCain among those who considered the economy the most important issue. It was a trend that continued in many states on Super Tuesday.

In the end Romney was able to attract a solid core of support among conservative Republicans, but he failed to expand that support enough among evangelicals (thanks to the presence of Huckabee) and moderates (thanks to the presence of McCain). The pincer movement that crushed Romney on Super Tuesday was just a magnified combination of the earlier individual results in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Looking back, it's easy, though unfair, to second guess Romney's strategy. He ran a classic, conventional campaign in a year that was decidedly unconventional. If Romney had run from the beginning on a message of competence, fiscal conservatism and national security instead of putting such a heavy emphasis on social issues - in other words if he had cast himself as a technocrat instead of a theocrat - Romney might have avoided the flip-flop label and found his message resonating with a wider swath of the Republican electorate.

Looking ahead, as Romney eyes up another potential bid in 2012 or 2016, Romney's balance sheet holds more assets than liabilities. He's built a solid organization, email lists, etc. that will serve as the foundation for a future run and he will continue to have the kind of personal resources at his disposal that few future competitors will be able to match.

On the downside, aside from the lack of national security credentials (which will be hard to bolster in a meaningful way) one of Romney's biggest failings as a candidate this year is something that can't necessarily be remedied with time: making a connection with voters. Much ink has been spilled this year detailing Romney's awkwardness on the trail, his lack of "personal touch" with voters that often means more than any amount of paid advertisements or publicity.

Lastly, it's impossible to write a post-mortem on the Romney campaign without mentioning the issue of religion. For evangelicals Romney's Mormonism was the elephant in the room, and despite his big speech on religious freedom last December, it appears to have remained a factor in the race. If you look at the returns from Super Tuesday Romney ran poorly in states with heavy evangelical electorates, finishing third behind Huckabee and McCain across the South and in Missouri.

It's been said many times that winning the presidency requires the right man (or woman, as the new case maybe) meeting the right moment in history. Clearly, this time around, 2008 was not the right moment and Mitt Romney was not the right man. But next time may be different.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com

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