Romney's "Gifts" Remark Ignores His Own Fatal Flaw

By Scott Conroy - November 16, 2012

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After wrapping up the Republican nomination four years later, he toned down the hokey tales from his youth. But instead of making a concerted effort to cut into President Obama’s advantages with key groups, Romney and his chief strategists seemed to bury their heads in the sand, predicating their hopes for victory on an assumption that young voters and minorities would turn out in lesser numbers than they did in 2008.

That strategy proved fatal to Romney’s hopes -- and is one the next Republican nominee almost certainly will not repeat.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Romney told major campaign donors on a conference call that his loss stemmed from “gifts” Obama distributed to African-Americans, Hispanics, and young people in order to secure their votes.

Romney’s comments drew immediate derision for both their tone and substance. After all, his simplistic Monday morning quarterbacking did nothing to explain why he lost by six points in the battleground state of Iowa, for example, where voters skewed disproportionately white and older than the overall electorate.

While he likely would have phrased his assessment more artfully had he known his comments would be made public, Romney’s reference to Obama’s success at making his case for re-election was not without merit: The president’s campaign indeed relentlessly courted minorities and young people.

But in saying that his defeat was due to factors beyond his control, Romney ignored his own failure to demonstrate to these very same voting groups that he understood their unique concerns and perspectives.

Romney’s overall argument was that he would make the economy better for everyone. But he steadfastly refused to take the next step and make his case on a narrower level, convincing critical demographic groups that he would specifically improve their lives and their communities.

Five days before this year’s Iowa caucuses, I sat down with Romney on his campaign bus for an interview on a wide range of topics.

A passage from that interview that never made it into my story involved a question about a new poll showing him losing the Hispanic vote in a hypothetical matchup with Obama, 68 percent to 23 percent.

“How do you change perceptions among Hispanics that would make you more competitive?” I asked, interested in how he intended to fine-tune his appeal to that critical voting bloc.

Instead, Romney answered in the broadest of strokes.

“People who come here come for good jobs,” he said. “My experience will demonstrate that I can create good jobs through a government that’s friendly to enterprise and not the adversary of enterprise. I believe the policy of my party and my campaign will attract Hispanic voters.”

I attempted to press him: “But is there anything specific that you can do to reverse that tide? I mean, those are pretty daunting numbers.”

“We’re so early in the process,” he replied, noting that bad polls numbers can “vanish in a week.”

That was his story and he was sticking to it.

In the end, exit polls show that Romney lost Hispanics by an even wider margin than had been foreseeable at the time: 71 percent to 27 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

There is little doubt that Obama’s appeal among young, African-American and Hispanic voters would have been difficult for just about any Republican opponent to overcome. But Romney could have made a far more concerted effort to mitigate that inherent handicap and to demonstrate more forcefully that he wasn’t writing off these groups as impossible to reach.

In the wake of a resounding defeat that many Republicans did not see coming, the GOP’s emerging new leaders are already taking pains to show they understand that the next nominee will need a far different mentality.

Asked about Romney’s explanation of his defeat, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal did not mince words:

“I think that’s absolutely wrong,” he said at a press conference marking his incoming chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association, according to Politico. “Two points on that: One, we have got to stop dividing the American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent. We need to go after every single vote. And, secondly, we need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American Dream, which is to be in the middle class, which is to be able to give their children an opportunity to be able to get a great education. . . . So, I absolutely reject that notion, that description. I think that’s absolutely wrong.”

As a 41-year-old Indian-American, Jindal’s very identity is one that might be more relatable to young voters and minorities should he launch his own presidential bid in 2016.

But, more importantly, his words and the forcefulness with which he delivered them leave little doubt that he and likeminded Republicans intend to dramatically demonstrate their commitment to expanding the GOP’s appeal. 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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