May 24, 2013
Romney's failure on take-off
Mitt Romney’s chances of winning the White House depend entirely on US President Obama’s failing to convince Americans that he deserves reelection. After struggling to secure the Republican nomination, Romney’s campaign has repeatedly failed to take off.
On paper, Mitt Romney has a number of credentials that should make him a strong contender. He has experience in the public and private sector. He has been successful in challenging projects and has led a scandal-free life. He is a religiously conservative family man, but a moderate in the policies he has embraced as a public figure. He has sufficient political experience and has been able to work with politicians across the aisle, putting ideology aside and showing a reasonable sense of pragmatism. As a former governor of Massachusetts, a strongly Democratic state, he has risen above partisan divisions. In leading the organization of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic games in 2002, he demonstrated his ability to bring the private and public sectors together to make things happen.
Unfortunately for Romney, none of those attributes seem to be the defining elements of his 2012 presidential campaign. Instead, the perception Americans have of Romney has been primarily defined by his opponents. During the Republican primaries, Romney was fiercely attacked by conservative Republicans for his moderate credentials. Since most of those participating in the Republican primaries were right-of-centre, Romney increasingly adopted more conservative views. As it normally happens in party primaries, to secure support among polarized primary voters candidates move away from the centre. The influence of the Tea Party conservative movement within the Republican Party induced candidates to further deviate from moderate positions. As he had proven credentials as a pragmatist and moderate, Romney made a special effort to present himself as a militant conservative. Moderation, an attribute that would normally be a personal strength in a general election, became a liability in the Republican primary. In the end, the move-to-the-right strategy paid off for Romney. After a long and extenuating battle, he was able to secure his party’s nomination.
Since then, Romney has failed to return to the centre and embrace moderate positions. Though the large majority of the American electorate is moderate, Romney seems unwilling or unable to present himself as a pragmatic and centrist Republican. Instead, he is still trapped in the logic of the Republican primaries. He has embraced positions and defended views that are very dear to the active conservative wing of the Republican Party but not widely shared by the American electorate. He has not actively courted moderate voters.
Assuming that voters will not pay much consideration to what the alternative entails, Romney has sought to transform the election into a referendum on Obama. More than presenting his own personal attributes, the Romney campaign has mostly focused on highlighting Obama’s failure.
The sloppy economic recovery and the high unemployment rate have been the central arguments used by the Romney camp to shore up support. So far, the strategy has not paid off. Though the economy is indeed in trouble, and the recovery has been far less speedy than Obama had promised, a majority of Americans still perceive Obama as a personable and honest politician. Obama has so far successfully survived the campaign to transform the election into a referendum on the president’s performance. He has done so by taking on the challenge presented to him by the Republican candidate. As Romney has put the focus on Obama’s performance, Obama has responded by asking Americans to choose on the personal attributes of the two candidates. So far, polls show that Americans — especially those in key battleground states — prefer Obama over Romney.
The strategy of turning the election into a referendum on the president’s performance is not a bad idea, especially when the economy is not doing well. However, it is not sufficient that people find the incumbent president at fault for the economic troubles. Even if a majority of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction, it does not automatically follow that they will want to replace the president with the alternative offered to them by the opposition party. If Americans find the challenger less likeable and less trustworthy than the incumbent president, they will re-elect Obama even if they think the country is not going in the right direction.
Romney’s campaign has failed to take off precisely because Romney has been unable to convince Americans that he could do a better job than Obama as president. Because he has been defined by his opponents, first in the Republican primaries and now by the Obama camp, Romney has been cornered into a conservative position that a majority of Americans will not easily relate to. Unless he is able to convince the electorate that he can be a moderate and pragmatic president, Americans will choose to keep Obama in power. Fortunately for Obama, Romney’s inability to define himself as a moderate is paving the way for the first African-American president to secure reelection in November.