Mitt Romney has been running for President for six years by most accounts (or for nine years, at least, by my count), and has been widely assumed to be the inevitable nominee. He has the benefit of a political pedigree, nice hair, and one of the weakest bunches of opponents a candidate could hope for. Nonetheless, he has faced, practically on a monthly basis, a new “non-Mitt” who races to the top of the polls and then collapses as a result of his or her ineptitude or baggage. Rick Santorum, the most recent of these upstarts, not only leads in polls nationally (admittedly, an almost useless standard), and in key states such as Michigan and Ohio, but actually has as many wins as Romney among the states to vote thus far. What gives? Let’s break it down:
Political beliefs and values: Before last weekend’s gathering of true believers at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a wide range of conservative commentators were calling on Romney to state forcefully his essential political beliefs and values. This was necessary because of the widespread discomfort many had expressed over Romney’s commitment to the conservative orthodoxy. What came out of CPAC of note, however, was the candidate’s jarring statement that as Governor of Massachusetts, he was “severely” conservative. Setting aside whether this was an accurate description, it was odd phrasing for someone who is quickly cornering the market on unusual ad-lib comments.
There is, however, a much bigger issue facing Romney. He doesn’t appear to have core beliefs or values on any issue, whether they are conservative or not. We know Newt Gingrich wants to colonize the moon, Rick Santorum opposes contraception, Rick Perry wants to make Congress half-time, Herman Cain had “9-9-9,” but what is Romney’s signature issue? Yes, we know he was a businessman who made a boatload of money for investors and himself, and “therefore” can fix the economy. What is his prescription? Doing “exactly the opposite of what Barack Obama has done.” Now that’s helpful. What will he do to tackle the deficit? He criticizes Obama for doing nothing on entitlements and criticizes him because the Affordable Care Act cut Medicare spending. His views on Medicare? He likes Paul Ryan’s plan which effectively eviscerates the program for those who are under age 55.
He also has a litany of refrains that push the red meat issues for conservative voters while simultaneously having no basis in reality. Obama has a “war on religion.” What? Obama went on an “apology tour” of foreign countries after being elected. Again, no basis in reality. Obama has made the economy worse. That one is starting to come part at the seams. On and on and on. He even devoted his first television ad to “quoting” Obama on the economy during the 2008 campaign when Obama was actually quoting the McCain campaign. Now he is reprising the Rick Perry theme and saying he is the only person running for President who has never worked a day in Washington. We know how much that helped Perry and, as Newt Gingrich would hasten to point out, it’s only true because he was crushed in his run for the U.S. Senate in 1994.
Negative campaigning: While going negative in a campaign is not actually an innovative concept — and is remarkably effective — Romney has spent a considerable amount of money in going after his opponents. (Excuse me, it’s not Romney but the super-PAC with which he “does not have connections” and often says he lacks knowledge of their activities.) He did not have to go negative early on, for when your opponents are Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, you can afford to smile in a patronizing manner and wait for their balloons to lose air and crash. Newt Gingrich presented a different problem when he soared to the top of national polls before Iowa. Romney hammered him in ads before the caucuses, causing Newt to lose steam but also allowing Santorum to sneak through to a victory. While many left Gingrich for road kill, he resurrected in South Carolina with his own negative ads, winning impressively. While Newt clearly had the potential to implode at any minute, Romney could not afford to lose the next primary state, Florida, and maintain his inevitability. So he went nuclear on Gingrich, vastly outspending him, coming away with the victory, and perhaps delivering a fatal blow to Newt’s campaign.
Now that Santorum is in the ascendency and Romney needing a win in Michigan, he will again go negative. Can it be effective against Santorum? Gingrich, to understate it, was a target-rich environment. While Santorum would present the Democrats with a mother lode of possibilities in the general election, many of his views that would be harmful in the fall help him in the GOP spring. Criticizing him for some of his outlandish right-wing views would make Romney uncomfortable since he would come across as more moderate, the “now” derogatory in the 2012 Republican Party. Going negative further emphasizes Romney’s lack of positive reasons for his own candidacy. And, polls are now showing that Romney’s net favorability ratings have plummeted, putting him in a very dangerous area when it becomes time to appeal to the general electorate.
Personal awkwardness: Early in the primary season, much was made of how Romney was a much better candidate than he was in 2008. You don’t hear much of that lately. He is actually a horrible candidate, although in this bunch that does not mean he will not prevail. Almost all of his efforts at humor either fall flat (such as pretending to be goosed by waitresses in a coffee shop) or rebound negatively on him, as when he joked about being unemployed. When he strays from his scripted narrative, he tends to get in trouble. There was the offer of a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry and, most recently, declaring himself to be “severely” conservative. One wonders how adept he would be at diplomacy if he can’t handle debates or meetings with voters.
More importantly, however, is that he displays nothing of himself even though he has been running all these years. We know he loves his family and has been married longer to one woman than all three of Newt Gingrich’s marriages combined. When he puts on the regular guy persona, he ends up looking foolish. In ’08 he was a hunter of “”small varmints, if you will.” This year he hunted moose until realizing he meant to say elk. At the end of one debate, candidates were asked what they would be doing that Saturday night if not debating. He will often pretend to be a sports fan, but gave himself away by saying he would be watching the college football championship game — but that was not being played until Monday.
The simple reality about Romney is that he is the great unknown. While much has been made in Republican circles about the “otherness” of Barack Obama, the President remains a remarkably likeable figure in polls. This isn’t a reflection of his views or competence, but a comment about his personality and authenticity. In the case of Romney, the more people learn about him, the lower his favorability ratings go. As the late, great Daniel Schorr said, “Sincerity: if you can fake it, you’ve got it made.” Romney’s been trying all these years, and it simply is not working for him. Reciting phrases from “America the Beautiful” (or heaven help us, singing it) is not going to help. His is a campaign of vacuous ideas led by a vacuous personality.