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Political Predictor #2

Date posted: Monday, April 9, 2012

How will Romney fare in the general election?

Photograph via Getty Images

Photograph via Getty Images

Editor’s note: At climactic moments during Election 2012, we’ll be gathering our political bloggers for a roundtable discussion. The format is this: we’ll pose a question, one blogger will answer, and the remaining three will follow. Each blogger has a chance to be the first to answer a question. Four bloggers, four questions, sixteen answers, infinite possibilities.

1. What is the Romney campaign’s most self-defeating comment thus far?

Stephen Kurczy: To start, let’s acknowledge that Time ranks the top 10 gaffes of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. We all misspeak. But doesn’t Mitt seem to slip up more egregiously, more frequently, more revealingly? He says he likes “being able to fire people,” he says his wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs,” he says he doesn’t personally follow car racing but he has “some great friends that are NASCAR team owners.” But the gaffe that will stick with Mitt through the general election, that will get tossed in his face repeatedly because it sums up his flip-flop record and amorphous beliefs, is simply revealed by the number of Construction political columns (four, and counting!) on this comment by his strategist Eric Fehrnstrom: “I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart it all over again.”

Anthony Resnick: I like the reasoning behind Stephen’s answer, so I’m going to choose another one along the same lines: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.” The rich guy gaffes make Romney seem out of touch and unlikable. As important as they are, more damaging are the gaffes that make Romney seem untrustworthy—like someone with no core convictions who is willing to say whatever he needs to say to get elected. What makes these kind of comments especially damaging is how easily they can be used to frame every comment Romney makes or has made. The sound bites in these DNC ads are damaging enough on their own; being able to frame them with comments from Romney and his campaign that make flip-flopping appear to be a Romney strategy or pathology makes them that much more effective.

Ian Cheney: Self-defeating comment. Hmmm. I’m trying to separate how bad they actually were to how bad they’re perceived. For example, “I like being able to fire people” sounds awful, but the media is pathetically misleading when they cut it off the nanosecond after “people” rather than letting the rest of the thought play out, a string that essentially culminates in “when they do a bad job.” Such an ability (firing people) is inextricably tied to a capitalistic society—allowing competition for work is one of the basic laws of western economics—so there’s really nothing wrong with the quote. Many of his “gaffes” play out fine if given enough room to breathe, and one of the sorriest parts of modern political coverage is hunting only for the twelve-word sound-byte, a sport that transforms our candidates into twelve-word robots. (And then we criticize them for it!) Thus, I find his biggest gaffes are not these inevitable missteps—which every candidate makes—but his dangerous dips into the deep end of foreign policy. If I had to pick one, it’s his recent denouncement of Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” It’s laughable now, but such a comment, if actually pushed by his White House, could come dangerously close to self-fulfilling. In general, the man is a sabre rattler without ever having actually picked up a sabre, and the president will outclass him on foreign policy.

Ben Hoffman: Good answers all around. I’m going to hedge in Ian’s direction, both by seconding his comment on the way the media covers political campaigns, and also by agreeing that Romney’s most self-defeating comment may be policy- rather than campaign-related. But I don’t know if it will be his targeting of Russia as our “number one geopolitical foe.” Most voters may not know enough about international geopolitics to understand just how silly that sounds. Instead, what about when Romney said last week that it would “be marvelous if the Senate were to pick up Paul Ryan’s budget”? No, this wasn’t a misstatement, but the question doesn’t specify a misstatement, just a self-defeating comment, and this definitely qualifies. Every budget Paul Ryan releases is unpopular, because his budgets always threaten massive reductions in domestic spending and the social net. So what did Romney do? He gave the budget a big, fat death hug.

2. Will the remaining primary results say anything about Romney’s strength or weakness in the general election?

Anthony Resnick: Romney and his campaign have responded to questions about his poor showing among elements of the Republican base with confidence that once Romney is declared the winner the party will unite behind him in the quest to defeat President Obama. If Santorum continues to outperform Romney with these constituencies even as the media start reporting that Romney has the race locked up, that indicates that Romney’s problems with the base could linger even as he goes one-on-one with the president. One reason to watch this is that it affects the selection of a running mate: the more that Romney can show that he himself is acceptable to all parts of the Republican Party, the freer he is to choose a running mate who is merely acceptable to—rather than a pander to—the base.

Ian Cheney: I shared with our editor that while the question is perfectly valid and answerable, it implies a variable when I don’t think there is one. Romney is going to walk all over Santorum for the balance of the primary. Santorum should be able to put enough resources into his home state of Pennsylvania to hold onto it, but besides that, I think Republicans across the country realize that this race is over. Most of the remaining states that we consider in Santorum’s wheelhouse will grudgingly line up behind the “Massachusetts Moderate.”

So, will this flourish of wins speak to Romney’s strength or weakness in the general? I’d say it’s nearly negligible, but I’ll hedge that it speaks more toward his strength. It can be seen that he’s building momentum into the general election. He started slow and at one point had lost a majority of the contests. If, however, he now strings together a bunch of wins against Santorum, it could catalyze an influx of positive coverage and corresponding fundraising heading into a mano-a-roboto for the general election.

Ben Hoffman: I’d look less at the actual vote results—as Ian says, “Romney is going to walk all over Santorum” in most remaining states—than at events peripheral. Will conservative enthusiasm rise? Will GOP elites start feeling sunnier? And how, if at all, will mainstream media coverage of Romney shift over the next few months? Will coverage become more favorable? Will it breathlessly report on every gaffe? Will it treat him Romney more as the legitimate Republican nominee and less as the default candidate who beat all the crazy people who threw their names into the ring?

Stephen Kurczy: Imagine if Romney swept the remaining states: what great momentum, putting him in a position of strength heading into the convention and general election, as Anthony and Ian said. Imagine if Romney lost all the remaining states: what a heyday for the media, as Ben said. New polls suggest something closer to the former, with Romney for the first time leading in Pennsylvania, which is Santorum’s home state. A win for Romney will signal that the party is coalescing around its man. Also look for signs in the remaining exit poll data: Romney has fairly consistently lost the younger (under age 50) and less-educated voter segments. Moreover, fewer people have been voting this year than in 2008. The remaining primaries will help gauge if Romney is attracting excitement in any segment.

3. Overall, how damaged is Romney for the general?

Ian Cheney: No more so than any candidate who escapes any primary with a victory. As has been a Republican talking point for months, the 2008 Democratic Primary was a bloody struggle that ultimately produced a united and victorious party. Senator Obama slammed Senator Clinton as “Bush-Cheney Lite” while Senator Clinton doubted President Obama’s ability to handle a 3 a.m. phone call. Yet, the Democrats now sit in the White House as both candidates make major decisions for the country and the world. Republicans hate many things and many people, but at the top of the list is President Obama. The regions where Romney has struggled in the winter and spring—the Midwest and Deep South—are in no danger of going blue in the fall. Meanwhile, Romney has clearly shown more strength in more competitive, purple states. Perhaps most importantly, Romney is learning what he can and can’t say to crowds and interviewers, making him battle-tested for the general. I’m not saying Romney’s going to win in November, but in regards to the damage from this primary, he’ll be fine.

Ben Hoffman: Well, Ian is right when he says that the regions where Romney struggled in the primaries are not going to be problems for him in the fall. It’s not like southern Republicans are going to vote for Obama. They’ll come around to support Romney. And as Ian says, Romney has shown more strength in purple states—but again, in the Republican primary. The general election may be a whole other story. Moderates are not feeling him right now, and with good reason: Romney veered extremely far right to finish off Santorum and Gingrich. Sure, he’ll slide back to the middle again. But doesn’t that move, necessary as it may be, just reinforce Romney’s (well-deserved) reputation as an Etch A Sketching flip-flopper? I think the primary has left him with a couple of open sores that could fester.

Stephen Kurczy: Ben is right: Romney is damaged. Think of Dan Quayle, first word that pops into your head is? “Potato” (without an “e”). Notably, Quayle is haunted by his own gaffe (as opposed to his opponents’ attacks), just as Romney will be haunted by his own Etch A Steps (rather than Santorum or Gingrich’s barbs).

Anthony Resnick: If you look at the trendline of Romney’s favorability, there’s support for both Ian and Ben and Stephen’s arguments. Romney is damaged in that he is far more unpopular now than he was when people started really paying attention to the primary. But his favorable/unfavorable numbers have started bouncing back over the last month. This likely reflects two factors that Ian mentioned: Republicans who were supporting other candidates are accepting the inevitable and falling in line, and Romney is “battle tested.” Even if he hasn’t yet learned to stop making rich guy gaffes, at the very least people are getting numb to them. While Stephen is right that Romney will never shed the caricature he’s created over the past several months, it’s also hard to imagine that image getting any worse. For as bad as things have been for Romney, he’s still polling fairly close to the president.

4. Besides the economy, what is one event or factor that could greatly influence the election?

Ben Hoffman: What if Iran announces it’s close to developing a nuclear bomb? Or if Israel bombs Iran? I don’t think either is going to happen any time soon. But what if? We’ve almost taken it for granted how solid Democrats have been on foreign policy, particularly in comparison to what a perceived weakness it was for John Kerry in the 2004 election. Most rational criticism has actually come from the left, on issues like drone attacks and surveillance; GOP attacks on Obama’s foreign policy haven’t really stuck. But any ominous foreign policy developments could potentially change that.

Stephen Kurczy: Israel attacking Iran would be a game changer, of course. But aside from the myriad catastrophes and unforeseen acts that could transpire over the next seven months, the unemployment rate will linger beneath every GOP attack on Obama, and every Obama policy defense. Right now unemployment is at 8.2 percent, the lowest level since January 2009 (7.9 percent) but still 1-3 points higher than any time since November 1983 under Ronald Reagan, when it was at 8.3 percent. Notably, that was already down from 10.8 percent in November 1982, and it would continue to drop to 7.2 percent by the time of Reagan’s reelection in November 1984. Just as Reagan’s chances rose as unemployment fell, Obama’s chances will fall if unemployment creeps up.

Anthony Resnick: By August, Romney could already be polling so far behind that he decides he needs to make a bold choice for a running mate. Picture: The Romney campaign selects someone who will excite the Republican base while being a historically unique enough choice to garner favorable buzz from the mainstream press. However, the decision is made rashly and the running mate is not properly vetted. He (or maybe she) turns out to be comically underinformed on important policy matters, providing great fodder for late-night comics and eventually going on to become a clown himself (or herself) on Fox News.

Ian Cheney: It depends on how realistic we want to be. I’d say on the far edges of realism is a Clinton-Biden swap. Hillary locks up the general election for the Democrats (at this point, we’re talking like 70 percent of women vote for that ticket) and would be in an unchallenged position for the party’s nomination in four years. Biden has no future after 2016, so why not go out as a great State Secretary, which is right in his wheelhouse? Closer to realism we have Anthony’s terrific prediction—the Republicans’ VP choice. The Palin pick in ’08 proved to be a sizeable pop in polls for McCain, but then it ultimately fizzled as the GOP’s best attack on the President—his inexperience—was partially muted because Palin would be one septuagenarian’s heartbeat from the presidency. Bad move, GOP. Can they make a better choice this time? (Hmmm, I think I have a gimmick column for next Monday! No one take it!) And if I have to pick one non-VP- (and non-foreign policy- ; Ben did a good job with that) related event that could shake things up, it’s Steve’s unemployment issue. Will it even matter how well Romney performs in the general campaign? If people continue to return to work through the end of October, the president will return to the Oval at the end of January.

Bonus! If the GOP presidential field was a family picnic, who would be the weird uncle and who would be the hot mom?

Stephen Kurczy: The question implies that every family gathering has a weird uncle and hot mom (admittedly, I came up with the question, so call me sexist if you must), but c’mon, we’ve all been to this picnic at some time. You know the weird uncle: a little too friendly, unhinged, hapless. In the Republican field, for as weird as all the candidates are, Rick Perry is my odd uncle, albeit a fun-loving one. Remember that drunken rant in New Hampshire? Or the count to three “oops“? And you know the “hot“ mom character, too: think back to when you were a boy . . . I still recall a crush on my always tanned, toned, and fit Aunt Debbie, newly-married and soon with babies on the way. In the GOP field, my “hot mom” vote still goes to Sarah Palin. According to an official poll from Cougared.com, Palin is actually America’s “most desirable mom,” even ahead of Courtney Cox! But watch out Sarah: Bristol looked pretty good in Dancing with the Stars.

Anthony Resnick: Lots of good choices for the “crazy uncle” prong of the question. I’m going with Rick Santorum. While I’ve been fortunate with regard to my own uncles, I feel like I’ve heard enough stories from friends about their one born-again uncle who turns every family gathering into a lecture on how everyone else is leading an evil and sinful life. I was struggling with the “hot mom” part of the question (couldn’t bring myself to say either Bachmann or Palin) until I had the idea to Google “celebrity endorsement 2012 primary” and came across this.

Ian Cheney: How have we not yet called Ron Paul the crazy uncle? If dictionaries were still in print and we looked up “crazy uncle” in one of them, we’d see a picture of Ron Paul. If we were to gauge Ron Paul’s craziness on a thermometer, he’d be somewhere north of batshit. If Ron Paul were an Alfred Hitchcock character, he would play himself and his mother’s basement-dwelling, rotting corpse.

As for the hot mom, I’m going with Steve’s Aunt Debbie.

Ben Hoffman: Ian is right that if dictionaries still existed, Ron Paul would be there under crazy uncle. Instead, we have to rely on the Google, and lo and behold!, the ninth autocomplete result for “Ron Paul crazy” is “Ron Paul crazy uncle.” Even more damning, the second—repeat, second!—autocomplete result for “crazy uncle” is “crazy uncle ron” (“crazy uncle ron paul” is fourth). This is probably in part because John Stewart tagged him affectionately as thus (followed by supporters co-opting nickname). But that only cements it. Besides Wikipedia, John Stewart and Google are the main information sources of the 21st century, right? And they both say Ron Paul is a crazy uncle! Meanwhile, Jon Hunstman dropped out so long ago you all probably forget about Mary Kaye: hot and willing to dish it out on the campaign trail.

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Ian Cheney, Connecticut resident, writes the Presidential Politics for America blog, which took a close, ongoing look at the historic primaries of 2008. He earned his M.A. in American Studies at Trinity College writing his Master’s Thesis on the Election of 1948. He teaches honors history in southeast Connecticut. Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. Stephen Kurczy is a New York-based journalist for the Financial Times Group. He is a former desk editor for The Christian Science Monitor, contributor to The Economist, and associate editor for The Cambodia Daily. He blogs and tweets. Anthony Resnick is a lawyer representing labor unions in Southern California. He previously worked as a community organizer for Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Josh Lawson is native of Raleigh-Durham (via D.C., via Los Angeles). He occupied positions in the public and private sectors, before transitioning to law. He holds a graduate degree in Political Management, a J.D., and is presently completing an advanced law degree at Duke. He is a former Coro fellow in public affairs and White House editor, and he has worked at the private practice of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

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8 Comments

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  2. Glenn CheneyApril 9, 2012 at 7:30 pmReply

    This is the best and most intelligent and balanced interpretation and prediction of the election that I’ve seen anywhere. Only thing wrong is everybody trying to identify just one crazy uncle (and not mentioning the only eligible hot mom). It’s a field of crazy uncles. Or should we call it a herd? Or a gaggle? Or a murder?

  3. NathanApril 10, 2012 at 10:26 amReply

    The real question is, would they let Herman Cain bring his pizza to the picnic, and if they would, how would that change the answers?

  4. SKApril 10, 2012 at 9:16 pmReply

    A day after Construction’s pundits made their predictions, Rick Santorum dropped out of the race. Hmmm. Coincidence? Or did Rick realize the futility his campaign after Ian Cheney forecasted that “Romney is going to walk all over Santorum for the balance of the primary.”

  5. ICApril 10, 2012 at 10:12 pmReply

    It is no coincidence. He came. He read. He withdrew.

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    […] up and runs with to the point of a self-fulfilling story. I wrote about the phenomenon in our April roundtable. Out of context excerpts—especially those made in presumably private circumstances—could hurt […]

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