With all the postmortems of the 2012 election having come and gone, we know the cold hard facts. Mitt Romney was trounced by President Obama in Electoral College terms – 332 to 206. Obama won the popular vote by a comfortable margin of 51% to 47%. He won the women’s vote by 11%. He won the under 40 vote by margins approaching 20%. And most importantly, he won the Latino vote by a staggering 44%.
The data has been fully analyzed many times over so we know how and why Romney lost in pure numbers terms. But elections, especially presidential elections, are about more than that. They are so often about the public’s perception of the candidate. While voters certainly care about the issues, their evaluation of the candidate’s positions on the issues is undoubtedly viewed through the prism of how they perceive the candidate. Mitt Romney lost the perception battle badly, and he lost it on both fronts in failing to shape the public’s perception of himself and its perception of President Obama.
In the early days of the summer, the Obama campaign embarked on a huge media blitz to define Romney as a “vulture capitalist.” Obama aides have since talked about the huge risk they took in spending exorbitant amounts of money to define Romney before Romney defined himself, leaving the campaign with less money to spend down the stretch. But it was a gamble that paid off. The ruthlessly and very effectively disqualified Romney’s primary qualification for the job – his successful business career.
Make no mistake about it, the Obama campaign ran one of the dirtiest campaigns in recent memory, with deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter going as far as suggesting that Mitt Romney might be a felon and linking him somehow to the death of a woman whose husband had been laid off by a company that was owned by Romney’s private equity firm Bain Capital (never mind that President Obama has openly admitted to using marijuana and cocaine, actual crimes). They repeatedly blasted the airwaves with tales of layoffs and misery resulting from Bain Capital’s takeover of various companies, including GST Steel and Dade International.
And the Romney campaign mounted no defense. Zero. Zilch. None. The Obama campaign was engaged in an all out assault on his character and the best the Romney campaign could do was to point out the many factual inaccuracies about his business record that were being perpetrated by Obama’s camp. They failed to effectively convey a positive narrative about Romney and his business career. As a result, the public bought the Obama camp’s portrayal of Romney as a super rich out of touch white guy who built his fortune off of the misery of the average American worker. The message: he doesn’t care about the average American and can’t be trusted to look out for their interests. You see, the problem with Romney’s infamous 47% remarks weren’t the remarks themselves, although they were troublesome indeed, the problem was that those remarks validated the perception of Mitt Romney that the public had already bought into.
Mitt Romney is a good man and his life is a a great success story. He has spent his life dedicated to his family and his faith. The biggest skeleton the liberal media could dig up about Mitt Romney was that he shaved a kid’s head as a prank in high school. And while he was born into a well to do family as the son of a governor, Mitt Romney is a self made man. The Romney perception included the stigma of a spoiled rich kid whose life was handed to him on a platter. That just simply isn’t true. Romney was not some kid who twiddled his thumbs until he took over daddy’s business. He graduated first in his class at BYU, received a JD/MBA degree from Harvard with honors (while raising a family), and then joined the consulting firm of Bain & Co., his work so well-respected that he was later asked by the CEO to start Bain Capital.
He should have stood up for his record instead of backing off it under the withering attacks of the Obama campaign.
Shipped jobs overseas? Yes, Mr. President Bain Capital took over companies that shipped jobs overseas because the American economy has become uncompetitive under the weight of regulation after regulation. I know why we shipped jobs overseas and I know how to fix it because I had to make those decisions. I actually had a job in the private sector and have a grasp of how the economy works outside of pure theory and academics.
Laid off workers? Yes, Mr. President we laid off workers. Businesses can’t live in the same dream world that you and your liberal academics live where everyone is entitled to have a job. It is an unfortunate fact of life that there are winners and there are losers and businesses sometimes have to lay off workers to survive. It’s an unfortunate fact but a fact nonetheless. But you’ve never had to make those decisions, since you’ve spent your entire life either teaching or in politics.
Paid an effective tax rate of 15%? Yep, I did Mr. President. Just like everyone else in this country, I don’t pay any more taxes than I owe. That doesn’t make me greedy, it just makes me sensible. Never mind that the average effective tax rate paid by Americans is 11% according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation. So don’t tell me I pay less than Warren Buffet’s secretary in effective taxes. And by the way, I donate a higher percentage of my income to charity than both you and Biden combined. If you want to make sure guys like me pay a higher tax rate fine, but don’t tell the American people that the way to do that is by letting the Bush tax cuts for the highest tax bracket expire because that is a flat out lie. When you own a business you don’t earn traditional income and are not subject to the income tax rate. But you wouldn’t know that because your paychecks have largely come from the government. And don’t call the top tax bracket millionaires and billionaires, because people who make $250,000 a year are not millionaires or billionaires, and in some places, like New York City or Los Angeles, they are nothing more than just merely comfortable.
Instead of running away from some of these things, he should have stood up and defended his record in a sensible, realistic way. People don’t always like hearing the truth, but they at least respect it. And they certainly don’t like feeling like a candidate is trying to pull a fast one on them by avoiding their record.
Not only did Mitt Romney’s campaign fail to put forth a positive narrative to rebut Obama’s attacks, they also failed to fight fire with fire. The Obama campaign was ugly, dirty, and a campaign with a central strategy of being the least worst choice. Their strategy was this: if we can drag Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan down far enough, no one will bother to focus on our record the past four years and the continuing dire economic situation. And it worked. They knew that was their only play and they played to win.
It is sad but true that in presidential politics, with billions of dollars at the candidate’s disposal to get their message out, relentless attacks and character assaults drown out the noise of where the candidates actually stand on the issues. That all could have changed, mind you, had then candidate Obama stayed true to his pledge to take only public funding for the 2008 election, as John McCain did. He reneged on that pledge, finding the taste of donations too sweet, and now we have campaigns spending over a billion dollars. Nevertheless, while issues matter to voters, in the end it comes down to one simple question about the candidate: are they on my side? And that is perception.
While the Obama campaign created a perception of Romney as a vulture capitalist stepping on the average American to build his vast fortune, the Romney campaign allowed the cult-like Obama perception from 2008 to remain unchallenged. They could have started with substance, pointing out that electing a president who was a state senator only two years earlier, a man with zero executive experience who was incredibly unqualified for the job, was a failed experiment. While Obama may be even more eloquent than Bill Clinton, it is clear to all that our government is currently a flailing ship without a captain. His signature achievement, Obamacare, was the work of Congress, not the White House. To this day, Obama still hasn’t taken a position on whether he was for universal healthcare or not. On the budget crisis, he was quick to savage Paul Ryan’s plan, accusing him of throwing the old and disabled out on the street, but refused to put forth any plan of his own to stop our runaway debt. None.
And then they could have joined the Obama campaign in the mud. When accused of being a felon and indirectly killing a woman, the Romney camp could have responded simply by reminding voters that Obama has admittedly used cocaine, a crime, and launched his political career with a fundraiser in the living room of Bill Ayers, a former (and now apparently reformed) domestic terrorist. That’s not right wing crazy talk like the birth certificate nonsense, it’s just plain true. Voters can make up their own minds about how much that matters to them. They also could have pointed out that Obama’s longtime spiritual mentor Reverend JeremiahWright, the man who married the Obamas and baptized their children, is notorious for anti-American rants. Remember “God damned America”? That was Reverend Wright. Nobody seriously (other than the liberal media) bought Obama’s mea culpa in which he claimed ignorance of Reverend Wright’s anti-American sentiments and disavowed them. While a man is not defined by his friends or associates, they certainly say something about who the man is. The company a man keeps is certainly relevant, at the very least.
Now, to be clear, these are not the types of things a presidential campaign should spend its efforts on. If candidates took only public funding, which in the 2012 election would have limited them to spending $91 million each, there simply wouldn’t be enough money to waste on the nonsense non-substantive issues like this. Elections should be about the issues. But that is not the reality now, thank you very much Mr. President. And when the Obama campaign comes at you with a hatchet, you can’t respond with a water gun. When the truth is so often drowned out by whomever can shout the loudest from the rooftops, perception is often all that matters.
In politics, losers talk about their high-minded campaign. Winners are busy changing the world.
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