Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mitt Romney's Pitfalls

Over the last month, we have written numerous posts about potential victory scenarios for the candidates, as well as strategies that Barack Obama might employ to defeat Mitt Romney. As the challenger, Romney's position in the race is different from Obama's in a fundamental way. For better or worse, Obama is tied to his performance as president over the last four years. This leaves Obama fewer options as he plans his campaign strategy. Romney, on the other hand, has a greater degree of choice. That flexibility is both a blessing and a curse. Obama's decisions over the next few months will do little to help or hurt himself. By contrast, Romney can hurt himself by making "unforced errors" while exercising his freedom. Avoiding pitfalls needs to be a high priority for the Romney campaign.

Pitfall #1: Bush's Third Term. One of the worst things a candidate can do is to make his opponent's job easier. Elephant Watcher determined that Obama's chances of victory are highest if he is able to convince voters that Romney would merely return the country to the economic policies of George W. Bush. Therefore, Romney must convincingly present his campaign as a new direction. This means when Romney is challenged to provide specific examples of ways he would be different from Bush, he needs a ready answer. Elephant Watcher believes that eventually the Obama campaign will come to realize its optimal strategy, and that Obama is likely to make such a challenge directly to Romney during one of their debates. Romney would do well to spend time practicing a strong answer.

Pitfall #2: Saber-Rattling. Voters view Obama as weak on the economy, but strong on foreign policy. They are also unwilling to engage in another war. During the Republican primary, Romney was occasionally tempted into burnishing his conservative credentials with hawkish language, particularly on the subject of Iran's nuclear program. Obama would be delighted to see Romney give the impression that a Romney presidency means war. Romney ought to avoid allowing the campaign to drift into a focus on foreign policy.

Pitfall #3: Social Issues. As always, voters are split on various social issues, even within the major political parties. Consequently, it's not possible to expect a clear-cut victory when wading into social issues. If the campaign drifts into a focus on social issues, it will become a quagmire. Romney would do well to maintain message discipline: His best chance of winning is keeping his focus on the economy.

Pitfall #4: Lack of Specifics. One of the difficulties in being an advocate of reduced government is being picking and choosing what should be cut from the budget. The process of cutting the budget involves deal-making by Congress. When a candidate proposes cuts to something popular, it's a lose-lose situation: As a candidate, he's not making the deal--and it's hypothetical since he hasn't been elected yet--so he gets the disadvantages of proposing the cuts without getting the advantages of actually fixing the budget. That may imply a candidate should be vague, but not entirely. A candidate should offer specific proposals to cut useless, unpopular programs or give specific examples of waste. Likewise, Romney should offer specific ways that he will create jobs, as he did when he announced his support of the Keystone Pipeline.

Usually these specific examples will be too small to have a major impact on the budget or economy. But this doesn't actually matter. Voters form general impressions of the candidates, even--perhaps especially--from small, specific, concrete examples. The left-leaning media would respond by pointing out the limited impact of the examples. But Romney could reply that the examples are used to illustrate the principles by which he will make decisions. Most voters would understand (if it's explained) that a candidate cannot secure a deal before he has the chance to actually work with Congress on implementing it. Thus, after the exchange with the media, voters would only be left with the general impression that Romney is in favor of some things they like, and would cut some things in a reasonable fashion.