Romney: A Campaign that Only Millions of Dollars Could Buy

When the prospect of a Santorum nomination gives me night-tremors, I console myself that his current poll dominance isn’t so much a surge in support for the failed Senator as it is a continued rejection of the presumptive frontrunner, Mitt Romney. It is simply inconceivable to me that the GOP would decide that what it really needs to defeat Obama is a Big Government, Pro-Labor social conservative whose legislative career was ended by a nearly 20 point loss in a swing state.

I know Santorum portrays himself as a man of conviction and principle–something GOP voters respond to–but a man who actively campaigned for Arlen Specter against Pat Tommey has a loose relationship with political principle. No, Santorum’s recent rise isn’t really about him but a consequence of the fact that GOP voters really don’t want to nominate Mitt Romney.

It’s a puzzle that will be dissected in political science class for years to come. Romney certainly had every advantage going into the contest. He was a successful businessman at a time of economic uncertainty. He had been a Governor, rather than a legislator in Washington. He had the most money and the biggest, most professional organization. He had run before for President and could make a plausible claim to being “next in line,” a powerful position in a GOP primary.

Of course, there was the RomneyCare problem.

What he had long considered to be his signature achievement as Governor looked more like an albatross in a post-ObamaCare world. It wasn’t just the superficial similarities between the plans that was the problem, but the fact that the cornerstone of each was a government directive to purchase health insurance. Mandates at the state level, rather than the federal, are just as onerous and offensive. Big State Government is still Big Government.

Still, I thought he could have navigated this mine field. The Massachusetts plan hasn’t worked out as advertised; it has been more expensive and done nothing to curb rising health costs. Romney could have used this “lesson” to say he had learned that the mandate approach wasn’t the right one. With the right dollop of humility, he could have said he had tried something and it hadn’t worked. Such an admission might have even earned him points with GOP voters.

Instead, in the first of a series of strategic blunders, he decided to double-down on the mandate. The individual mandate was fine when he did it, he argues, because it was a state-level mandate. In Romney’s world, the onerous government intrusion into the health care marketplace was “right” for Massachusetts. Presumably, he would support the other 49 states passing an individual mandate as well.  There may not be a federal mandate as a result, but it would be largely a distinction without much of a difference.

His campaign has struggled as a result. But, this initial misstep has been compounded by other blunders. Chief among these was the campaign’s decision to “go it alone” and not reach out to conservative or tea party grass roots activists and organizations. The rise of the tea party movement and its appeal to non-traditional GOP and Independent voters is one of the more significant political phenomenon of the past few decades. Not only was Romney conspicuously absent from the political dialogue during the rise of the movement, he has continued to shun the grass roots even as the Presidential primary was well under way. Given that he was the “conservative” alternative to John McCain in 2008, reaching out to the grass roots base of the party should have been a natural fit for him. Now he is a candidate without a base. Most of the supporters he has are with him because he is the “inevitable” nominee. If he continues to look weak, this support may start to melt away.

I think both of these mistakes are attributable to the type of campaign Romney has built. With overflowing campaign coffers, Romney could afford to hire a gaggle of high-priced political consultants. But, whatever ties these consultants had to the grass roots base of the party have long since withered. They seem to not fully understand nor appreciate the dramatic changes in the political landscape over the past three years. These are not the days for a technocratic, 59-point plan approach to reviving the economy. 59 point plans are not bold, rather they look muddled and, in the end, fairly weak. The public doesn’t believe we have 59 small problems, but 2 or 3 big things that have gone disastrously wrong. They aren’t looking for nuance.

Worse, Romney’s consultants are executing an old-style political campaign better suited for past decades. They see the political terrain as a collection of media markets and build the campaign through 1,000 point media buys on broadcast TV. In a world where over 30% of likely voters no longer regularly watch TV and others spread their viewing over dozens of channels , it is becoming an increasingly ineffective way to communicate with voters. Even when you reach the voters you’re targeting, the saturation buys orchestrated by Romney’s campaign pay quickly diminishing returns. Of course, commissions on these types of buys is where the consultants earn the bulk of their fees, so no one has an incentive to adapt.

The biggest mystery about the Romney campaign’s missteps, though, is its stubbornness in sticking to this strategy. We are told that Romney was a highly successful turn-around expert. He would invest in troubled companies and turn their businesses around. A similar effort with the Winter Olympics launched his political career. He might want to dust off these skills, because if anything needs a turn-around expert it’s his campaign.

It’s worrisome that Romney doesn’t seem to think he needs a course-correction. After his disastrous showing in South Carolina, the campaign brought in a new debate coach. Romney’s performance in the next debate was greatly improved and went a long way towards blunting Newt’s momentum. Within a couple weeks, it was announced that this new debate coach was leaving the campaign, suggesting he was at the losing end of an internal turf war. So, Romney reverted back to form.

His response to his troubles seems to be “more.” More of everything they’ve already been doing. The challenge for Mitt though is that this “double-down” strategy, as outlined by his consultants, requires wheel-barrels of money. If this latest effort falls short, the money may start drying up.

If that happens–and I think Romney has a very small window to turn things around–expect even more calls for a late entry into the race. Because, I don’t think I’m the only one with Santorum night-tremors.