Lately a simple question has been coming to mind: just how did Mitt Romney get elected governor of heavily Democratic Massachusetts ten years ago? Romney could have run for governor of Utah instead, which would have been not only easier but would have spared us the egregious Jon Huntsman. Saying that he ran as a moderate, pro-choice Republican is not a fully adequate explanation. Nor is a weak Democratic opponent (Shannon O’Brien), or the strange fact that Democratic Massachusetts had elected three Republicans in a row before Romney. If anything that made it an even harder race to win.
Now, you can paw through the record of that campaign, where among other things early Democratic mistakes in their attacks on Romney backfired (sound familiar?). Romney still trailed in the polls throughout October, but ended up winning by five points. How come?
At the end of the day enough independent voters and Democrats found Romney appealing, just as independent voters and many Democrats always found Ronald Reagan appealing in his governor’s races in California. Reagan usually ran ahead of his polls, too. Both Reagan and Romney are what common sense observers might call “voting booth” candidates—people that you end up being comfortable voting for when you walk into the booth still slightly doubtful about the choices. I expect that Romney will win any state where good polls show him running even with Obama over the last weekend.
When journalists and historians look back over this campaign, they will surely point to the first debate on October 3 as the turning point, which is correct, though it is going to upend all the conventional wisdom of academic political science that debates don’t matter much or affect the results much. I’m sure there will be lots of fancy and mostly unreadable journal articles “proving” Romney’s debate didn’t really make any difference. But that’s why no one pays much attention to academic political scientists
Of more interest might be this late August story by Major Garrett in National Journal about how the Obama campaign thought they had it in the bag. It’s a remarkable study in hubris:
Every campaign, of course, believes it’s going to win. Obama’s team, however, conveys such a visceral sense of self-confidence that even protestations to the contrary take on air of comically profane absurdity. . .
“They didn’t give people anything to grab on to, and they allowed us to define him before he could define himself,” Axelrod says of Romney. “And now they are playing catch-up. And now they are running bio ads. The summer is when candidates and races get defined. That’s why we made a strategic decision that it was better to muscle up in the summer. I can’t think of a presidential race determined by paid media after Labor Day.”
That’s Axelrod’s understated way of saying—feet-up-on-the-desk protestations notwithstanding—that he thinks the election is already over. . .
“Those guys over there love to talk about 1980, which I think is delusional for a whole range of reasons,” Axelrod said. “Obama is not Carter, and Romney is not Reagan.”
But this is the sentence that will end Axelrod’s career as a leading political sage:
“They have this fantasy that the debates will come and the dam will break like it did in 1980,” Axelrod said. “I think they are delusional.”
And here’s the Benghazi coda:
In Chicago, talk of unexpected events toppling Obama’s path to reelection are largely cursory. This nonchalance, by the way, is said to perturb the Windy City’s mayor, and former Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who frequently warns that the president’s popularity is “defying gravity” and that the campaign must ward against its tendency toward all-knowing arrogance.
Rahm ought to know.