File this under the Strange Case of the 2012 Presidential Campaign. It was a long, tortuous trip that ended up at a very familiar destination: the re-election of President Obama.
But along the way, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did garner more electoral votes than a lot of losers, including John McCain in 2008, Bob Dole in 1996 or Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Romney must have done some things right. And he must have done some things wrong.
On Election Day, Romney was asked by a reporter if he had regrets. “No campaign is perfect,” Romney said. “Like any campaign, people can point to mistakes.”
And so here we are, as the election dust settles, asking seasoned political observers to do just that — point out a handful of foul-ups, fallacies and false steps in Romney’s run.
1) At first, Romney didn’t lead the Republican Party, it led him.
This one was not Romney’s fault, but the “manufactured Republican primary” of 2012 was a major miscalculation by the party, says Massachusetts political pollster and Emerson College professor Spencer Kimball. Instead of the winner-take-all system that had been used in the past, he says, Republicans “tried to capture some of the energy from the Obama-Clinton [Democratic] primary of 2008 and changed the rules to basically a proportional vote system.”
The result, Kimball says, was an artificial race — and Romney responded by tacking to the right on social issues as the campaign unfolded during the spring. Instead of the primary battle ending on Super Tuesday — March 6 — with a Romney nomination, the race continued for five more weeks before former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finally stepped aside.
“His campaign spokesman tried to keep Romney looking moderate with the Etch-a-Sketch comment in late March,” Kimball adds, “But this gave Romney problems out of the gate — with finances, fracturing of the party base and messaging, which caused him to trail in the polls until the convention and the first debate.”
2) For too long, Romney let the Democrats define him.
Throughout the summer, “Romney basically allowed the Democrats to run a blizzard of ads telling the nation who he was, defining him as a vulture capitalist — uncaring,” says presidential historian Julian Zelizer of Princeton University. “He didn’t really respond, and by the time he did — at the convention, which was too late — the Democrats had already defined to the nation who Mitt Romney was.”
Zelizer says it reminded him of 1988, when Michael Dukakis let George H.W. Bush pigeonhole him as a weak and ineffective leader.
3) For a while, the Romney campaign lost focus.
After the American consulate in Benghazi was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012 — and Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed — Romney repeatedly criticized the way the Obama administration handled the international crisis. The former governor “got caught up in foreign policy at a time he shouldn’t have,” Zelizer says. “He and his campaign made a big mistake. They took their eye off the economy. They focused so much on Libya and not on the economy.”
On the day after the election, The Washington Post reported that Romney knew he had made a mistake by criticizing Obama immediately after the attack. “We screwed up, guys,” Romney confided to his aides.
4) The campaign had too many unscripted occasions.
Mac McCorkle, who teaches the politics of public policy at Duke University, points to two misbegotten moments: First, the “messed-up convention launch” in late August — where Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair stole the show. And second, the leaking in September by Mother Jones of the off-the-cufflink “47 percent speech” that Romney had delivered at a Florida fundraiser. In the clip, he insinuated that many Americans are basically freeloaders.
5) Instead of ending with a bang, Romney’s campaign faded away.
By 9 p.m. on Election Night, says NPR’s Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving, exit polls made it clear to Romney and his advisers that he was behind in the key states and had no path to 270 electoral votes. “It was time to stop denying the plain facts and offering an alternative reality through media mouthpieces,” says Elving, referring to Romney advocates such as Karl Rove, who was telling Fox News that his candidate still had a chance to win.
Instead, Romney should have been crafting a runner-up speech. “It was time to start preparing a concession,” Elving says. “John McCain did that. Even George W. Bush made some preliminary moves to prepare for a possible concession on Election Day 2004 before the trends changed.”
Ultimately Romney was gracious, Elving adds. “But the final hours once again showed his campaign team in some disarray, unable quite to come to grips with their situation.”