US 2012: Whose campaign is it anyway?

By J Brooks Spector 25 June 2012

“This Campaign Is Mine, Damn It, Not Yours!” Though Mitt Romney would never say such a thing to a fellow Republican, he’s been thinking it. J BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look as the Romney camp tries to get its campaign message squared and ready for national prime time.

Romney’s got to an unhappy place trying to make his case that Barack Obama’s economic policies have failed, even as Republican governors – for their own purposes – keep trumpeting their successes in reviving their respective states’ economic fortunes. 

Most recently, the Romney camp told Florida’s governor to stop with the talk about recovery, lest it step on Mitt’s own message that the economy of the country is in the dumpster because of Obama. Tough play, that one. Then, there has been the newest set of Bain Capital storms, as well as the uncertain impact of the pending Supreme Court decision on the Obama healthcare plan.

One of the tough parts about mounting a national campaign for the presidency – especially as a challenger to an incumbent – is getting all the fissiparous parts of your party to speak with something approaching one voice, and specifically having that voice be the presidential candidate’s. 

The task is to do this without looking like you are behaving like an insecure dictator confronting rebellious tribes back in the hills – or your own personal demons. Romney is now finding out all about this particular little challenge – in addition to the one posed by his actual opponent. 

Since he began his marathon quest for the US presidency with the 2008 race, he has based virtually his whole case for being elected on his record as the grandmaster of job creation as founder-head of Bain Capital, that leveraged buyout company, and his heroics as the cost-conscious rescuer of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. This, much more than his role as a distinctly moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts (where he helped put in place a healthcare plan that was the model for Obama’s), has been his persona as he tries to broker a peace between the anti-tax, anti-spending faction and the conservative-social-attitudes corner of the Republican Party.

As a part of this positioning, the Romney campaign has been stressing the difficulties flowing from Obama’s economic policies and the failure of the Obama administration’s stimulus package, despite much evidence to the contrary: private sector employment has gained, the continuing losses are most apparent in the public sector as government entities find themselves cash-strapped. Even Democratic supporters have been arguing that the recovery needs more time or that the impact of the stimulus programmes has been blunted by the obdurateness of a Republican-dominated Congress. Some members of Romney’s own party have gone, as they say, off message. This has been especially problematic for the Romney campaign when this disconnect has come in a big battleground state like Florida. 

When the Republican governor of Florida wandered over to the dark side, Romney’s presidential campaign told governor Rick Scott to tone down his statements trumpeting the improvements in the state’s economy under his Republican stewardship because they were stomping on Romney’s message that the nation is suffering under President Barack Obama. Out there in the woodshed, Scott was told to amend his message by insisting the state’s jobless rate could improve faster under a Romney presidency. 

The Romney camp apparently felt it had no choice but to weigh in after Scott’s re-election campaign broadcast campaign ads, and sent out press releases and Internet-based messages from the Florida Chamber of Commerce cheering the fall in the state’s unemployment rate to 8.6% (the national unemployment rate is 8.2%). Scott’s camp had been saying the jobless rate had dropped for 11 consecutive months and they were asking  supporters to “spread the news” on Facebook, Twitter and by e-mailing friends. The narrator in the TV ad had said: “Companies are hiring, expanding, putting more Floridians to work. Florida’s unemployment rate continues to get better.” That just doesn’t sound like Mitt’s message. 

Meanwhile, in Iowa, the problem for Romney is worse. Unemployment there is now significantly lower than the national average. As the Los Angeles Times explained, “Des Moines and Cedar Rapids are among the top media markets in the nation for presidential campaign advertising. … But the state presents complications for Romney’s central argument, which is that Obama has failed to fix the nation’s economy. Unemployment in the state is 5.1%, well below the national average. … (and) the farm economy is booming….” Oops, wrong story line for Obama’s economic failure out there in the heartland. 

These examples point to a dilemma for the Romney campaign: how can they allow Republican governors to take credit for economic improvements on their turf even as they fault Obama’s stewardship of the national economy? Republican governors in Ohio, Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin also have highlighted improving economies, thereby running cross-grain to Romney’s core message. 

Romney’s campaign is especially eager to sell its economy message in Florida because it is one of the most competitive of the battleground states – as well as the one richest in electoral votes. The past three presidential races were decided there by 5% or less. The most recent Quinnipiac University poll now says Obama leads Romney, 46% to 42%, a significant shift in just a month when Romney led 47% to 41%. 

Putting their best face on this presumed crossed-wiring among the Republicans, Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul has been sending emails to spin the message now that of course her candidate praises governors “for their ability to overcome the job-stifling policies of the Obama administration.” By contrast, Scott’s message is clearly pretty murky. Managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Brad Coker observed about Scott’s ads: “The first time I saw that ad I initially thought it was an Obama ad. They’ll have to tamp it down.” 

Meanwhile, over in Ohio, yet another of those crucial battleground, swing states, the Republican governor there, John Kasich, has been touting his state’s declining unemployment rate and the nearly 76,000 jobs added in the past 12 months. So far at least, Romney’s minions haven’t asked Kasich to change the message. Yet. 

Even so, Romney and Kasich don’t appear to be using the same sheet music. Two months ago, the two men were at the same campaign event at a university in the state capital where Romney told students about the difficult job market for graduating seniors even as Kasich had talked about all the state’s unfilled jobs. Queried about this discrepancy, Kasich told reporters that even though Ohio’s economy is improving, it was all that “uncertainty” from the current president’s policies on healthcare, taxes and regulation that “puts wind in our face” – and that would change if Romney were elected. 

And over in Michigan, in yet another of those battleground states, the governor there, Rick Snyder, told an audience just a week ago that Michigan was “the comeback state of the United States” as its jobless rate has shed over five percentage points since August 2009. 

In Virginia too, it’s virtually the same story. Governor Robert McDonnell’s political action committee placed a TV ad in April that touted employment gains since he took office two years ago, while Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (in, guess what, yet another battleground state) said economic progress had been a key part of his successful defence against a June 5 recall election, noting unemployment had fallen from 7.7% to 6.8% in May. 

If this mixed messaging among Republicans wasn’t a challenge enough, the Romney campaign is now confronting charges its candidate’s tenure at Bain Capital, the company he co-founded, excelled at picking good targets for leveraged buyouts and job creation – but the job creation came as outsourcing of the jobs to low-cost economies abroad. Added to that has been the charge that even if some of the companies they purchased failed, the new owners made money anyway – for themselves. Then, to top off a bit of a bad run of things, that old back-when-we-were-young group photo of the Bain Capital team, gloating and mugging at the camera, with currency literally falling out of their jacket pockets, was being passed around as a particularly vivid illustration of these charges and the mindset behind them. 

As the Washington Post described the photo: “The seven Bain Capital founders believed they were so destined to make millions that the young men posed for a photo on the grand marble staircase of Boston’s Copley Place with $10 and $20 bills popping out of their shirt collars, tucked behind their eyeglasses and clutched in their teeth.” This image, together with malapropisms like “I love to fire people”, his automobile elevator in the California home and the wife’s little equestrian hobby all seems to conspire to keep alive an image that combines Daddy Warbucks (before the change of heart towards Annie), Ritchie Rich and that Reggie character from the Archie comics – almost certainly not the image Romney had in mind for himself when he decided to run for the presidency. 

To help press home the awkwardness of the Romney message, David Axelrod at Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago had a group telephone call-in for reporters to help give yet a little further oomph to that image with the media (click here to listen to the group call).  

Thus far at least, this Obama campaign strategy seems focused on a few key tacks. The first, as with their attack on the Romney record at Bain, is the picking apart of Romney’s claim to have an unambiguous record on job creation. A second is the making use of the power of the presidency, the impact of incumbency and the so-called “bully pulpit” to make decisions that have the potential to make a sudden big splash to appeal to specific demographic sectors and interest groups. 

In recent months, two particularly effective ones have been Obama’s personal endorsement of gay marriage. The second was his determination that the children of illegal immigrants/undocumented aliens be allowed to fast-track to permanent residence and citizenship if their own records are clean. The first of these has put the president squarely on the right side of emerging opinion among voters under the age of 50, while the second can be reliably expected to register positively with Hispanic American citizens, even as Romney’s campaign keeps trying to figure out how to appeal to that demographic. 

Moreover, in describing the campaign so far, and the tactical manoeuvres undertaken by the White House, the Washington Post has added yet another thread. “The question is whether, in reacting quickly and forcefully to his provocations, Republicans are playing directly into Obama’s strategic plan. It’s no secret that President Obama is doing everything he can to run against the unpopularity of the Republican Congress, trying at every turn to lump former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — who has never served a day in office in Washington DC — in with that lot.” Congress’ popularity is now about a fourth of that of Obama’s, with most people grouping Congress with used-car salesmen on the trust scale. 

Depending on which poll one reads, the Obama candidacy is reasserting a lead in the overall popularity among voters and in many of the key battleground states, or the race remains virtually neck and neck. The new Bloomberg poll shows Barack Obama up 13 points over Mitt Romney, but it is almost certainly an obvious outlier, although it just as obviously has helped morale in Obama’s Chicago headquarters – and in the White House. 

The key point about such polls, however, is that Americans are still focused – for the most part – on their summer vacations or on job searches among recent graduates right now, rather than this presidential race. Traditionally, the real impact of the campaign on the average voter doesn’t show up until Labour Day, the first Monday in September, a date that marks the end of summer vacations, return to school, office or factory and an increasingly competitive and combative campaign environment. It is true, however, that this campaign may be unusual in that it has penetrated more deeply, more quickly than most. 

There is one more wrinkle at this point in the campaign that must be noted. The Supreme Court is scheduled to announce a ruling shortly on the Obama healthcare package passed in 2010 and then challenged through the courts up to the Supreme Court. Legal analysts argue that the Obama administration may have made a less than effective case for the law’s constitutionality in relying on the government’s right to issue “mandates” (in this case, the requirement to purchase health insurance in one of several different ways) rather than in allowing this requirement to be labelled a new “tax” for political reasons. 

If the Court fails to uphold the mandate provision, but accepts the rest of the package, the Obama administration may be able to find some solace in this – but no one is sure how it will all break – and the resulting ruling could throw both campaigns into turmoil as they sniff danger and opportunity in the meaning of the decision. 

In describing this double-edged sword quality to the possible ruling, the Associated Press wrote on Sunday that “this coming week, when the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the law, both sides will be scrambling for political gain no matter the outcome. If the court upholds the law, Obama will get vindication for his signature legislative accomplishment. Romney will have a concrete target for his pledge to repeal it.” 

“If the court rules against part or all of the law, Obama could blame Romney, congressional Republicans and a conservative-leaning court for denying health benefits to millions of people in the United States. Romney could claim victory for his assertion that the government over-reached.” 

“Striking down all or part of the law less than five months from Nov. 6 election also could mean much political uncertainty for both campaigns. That could force them to reshape long-held strategies and try to satisfy voter demands for Washington to start anew on fixing a broken healthcare system.” 

It’s probably a good thing for both candidates that the election is still four months away. The newest polls say as many as 25% of the electorate have yet to make up their mind about which candidate to support – and which philosophy of government they want to see in power, come November. As a result, this fight for tactical advantage – rather than broad, overarching themes – is going to be the way of the election battle this year. Thus, down and dirty, deep in the trenches, right to Election Day. DM

Read more:

  • Romney Campaign Said to Ask Scott to Downplay Job Gains at Bloomberg
  • Is President Obama baiting House Republicans? At the Washington Post
  • First blood to Obama in the presidential battle in the Financial Times
  • How Lucky Is Obama In His Opponent? At the New Republic
  • THE RACE: Some swing states seeing strong rebounds at the AP
  • Poll: Romney closes in on Obama, economic angst up at the AP
  • Axelrod Audio from Time
  • Democracy for Sale at the New Yorker
  • 1984 Bain Capital money photo captured Romney on eve of major success at the Washington Post
  • 1984 photo shows how Romney, Bain founders expected to make millions (Boston Globe archives)
  • MSNBC Talks Romney’s Bain Capital Picture at MSNBC via YouTube
  • Obama, Romney seek advantage on health care ruling at the AP

Photo: US Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney makes a cherry pie with the help of owner Linda Hundt while he visits the Sweetie-licious Bakery Cafe in DeWitt, Michigan, June 19, 2012. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)


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