Does anyone remember the Democrats in 2004? They were convinced that their base was a majority in the country and were absolutely certain that their complaints against the President were understood by the citizenry. Primary voters selected an electable politician from Massachusetts who campaigned on what they thought were obvious truths about the situation in the country. The candidate then went down to defeat against an incumbent that skillfully turned out his base. It’s like going back in time, only without the smaller waistline and fewer gray hairs. The myth of electability also played a role in the selection of the Republican nominee the last two times around.
The main similarities between Mitt Romney and John Kerry are superficial; both are from Massachusetts and were accused of flexibility in their positions. The charge of conveniently flipping on issues was deployed by Republicans against Kerry in 2004 and against Romney by his opponents during the primary. When he ran for President, John Kerry had the distinction of being one of the most liberal members of the United States Senate. He was so liberal that some conservatives took to calling Ted Kennedy the more conservative Senator from Massachusetts. Kerry campaigned against the war in Iraq, which was still popular with the voters, and stated his intent to apologize to our allies. Kerry’s flip flopping on his support for the war, including the infamous “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it” and the proposed apology tour hurt his standing with voters, but something else cost him the election.
President Bush’s victory in Ohio, and with it the election, was not because of any specific gaffe committed by Kerry. Karl Rove, a senior adviser to the President, had determined that the margin of victory in the 2004 election would come from blocks of votes in swing states. The same thing appears to have happened this time around. The Obama campaign identified key voting blocks in must win states and turned them out under the radar. Time magazine has a feature on how the Obama campaign used its data to get citizens to donate to the campaign, test responses to different ads and turn out their base.
Myth of the Electable Moderate
I believe that one of the myths that can be safely laid to rest after Tuesday is the one about the electable moderate Republican. Twice now, Republicans have done what party leaders and the media suggested and nominated the ‘electable’ moderate who will reach across the aisle and work well with others. We have been told that independents love these types of Republicans and that they can not just win, but win big. The next Republican consultant that tries to push this line should be black-balled.
During the primary season Newt Gingrich ran radio ads featuring characters looking forward to a Gingrich-Obama debate. He also mocked Romney’s ability to debate and speak to the public. As it turns out, Mitt Romney did very well in his three debates with the President. He had a knockout in the first debate and performed solidly in the subsequent two. Debate prowess was likely not a determining factor in anything but making the margin of loss slightly smaller. The real problem was one of ideology, or rather a lack of ideology on the part of Romney. One of the phrases that Rick Santorum used to describe himself during the primaries was “full spectrum conservative.” He was aware that he was best known among voters for his stands on social issues but emphasized that he was not a single issue candidate. There likely will be arguments about whether Santorum would have done better; that is not the point. Mitt Romney ran as a competent businessman who could fix the problems in the economy; Obama ran as a big government ideologue who would bail out industries and protect abortion. Romney’s implicit truce on cultural issues left him with competence as his main selling point. He did not communicate why he is a conservative. He did not explain the role of his faith in his good works and charitable contributions. Mitt Romney has led an exemplary personal life and had a very successful run in business, but the only part that he chose to put across was that of the competent manager.
Romney ran a careful campaign that almost exclusively used facts and figures about the economy. Campaign messaging did not give voters a vision of how a second Obama term would negatively affect their lives. We can see now how well that strategy worked. Independents see a Republican candidate that will provide most of what the Democrats will only more slowly or with tweaking at the margins and many decide that they prefer the real thing. With the exception of the federalism argument Romney could not strike out at Obamacare because he had implemented something similar. He even proposed to keep parts of the plan because they polled well when a full repeal of the law, followed by new legislation to implement popular parts would have had a better psychological effect. Romney did not discuss the freedom crushing qualities of the health care law instead focusing mostly on its economic impact.
Blurring differences on some issues and ignoring others is not the route to victory. Ronald Reagan said it best that people want bold colors not pale pastels. There are conservative Republicans out there that are capable of promoting conservatism while appealing to a wide swath of the country. We need to give them our support.