In 1992, Democratic strategist James Carville immortalized the phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid,” making the point that in the end, most presidential elections come down to something pretty simple.
And as we wade through all the post-mortem analyses about what went wrong for Republicans this year – They've permanently marginalized themselves as a party of old white men! They got schooled by the high-tech Obama turnout operation! They were sunk by the loony-tunes gaffes of tea party types! – well, we just keep coming back to something much more basic: “It was the candidate, stupid.”
We take no pleasure in piling on Mitt Romney here. Running for president is hard, and losing (twice) is obviously a bitter pill. We hope Mr. Romney can take some solace in the knowledge that, as he said in his concession speech, he left it all on the field.
And there's no question that there are larger issues for Republicans to think through here – above all, how to win more support from Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.
But we can easily envision a 2016 race featuring, say, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in which the GOP's share of the Hispanic vote suddenly, magically rises. Or a 2016 race featuring, say, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, that somehow manages to attract more young people and women.
Notably, as Sean Trende points out in a trenchant analysis in RealClearPolitics, Romney’s loss may actually have had more to do with white voters who chose to stay home than it did with the increased turnout among minorities. And in the end, we think Romney’s lack of appeal to both whites and even many non-whites wasn’t just about policy – but about personality.
Because, let’s face it: Romney was not a great candidate. He won the nomination because every other potential top-tier candidate decided to take a pass. Let’s not forget, during the GOP primary season, we in the media actually spent weeks covering Herman Cain as the field’s frontrunner. Rick Santorum, the sweater-vested ultra-conservative former senator from Pennsylvania, who compared homosexuality to bestiality and had lost his own seat by a whopping 18 points, wound up being Romney’s stiffest competition.
We agree with the pundits who say that, in retrospect, it was incredibly ill-advised for the Republicans to nominate – during a cycle that was likely to be dominated by tales of economic hardship – a multimillionaire who had made his fortune in the kind of investment activity many Americans associate specifically with the crisis at hand.
But Romney’s biography wasn’t the biggest problem. It was Romney himself.
He was never able to connect with voters on the trail. Worse, he wasn’t ever able to deliver a speech that sounded like he had any genuine political convictions. It always felt mechanical, artificial, like a series of talking points he’d just memorized. In a way, Romney’s political biography – with its moderate-to-conservative-and-back-to-sort-of-moderate-again path – may have been the bigger problem, if only because it seemed to reinforce the overall sense that there was no there there.
True, Romney had that one good debate performance. But even that, in hindsight, seemed to conceal Romney more than it revealed him, since he spent most of it blurring differences between himself and the president.
And an inordinate (perhaps unfair) amount of the campaign wound up being devoted to Romney's awkward, off-script remarks. There was the infamous “47 percent” comment. The insult to the Brits during the Olympics. The “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners” and “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
The problem with those types of comments weren’t that they highlighted Romney’s wealth, his plutocrat image. Rather, they highlighted his inability, in various types of social circumstances, to muster up appropriate responses. You can call it a lack of emotional intelligence. Or you can call it a lack of acting ability. (MSNBC actually had James Lipton, of Inside the Actor’s Studio, on as a guest repeatedly throughout this cycle to critique Romney’s style on the stump, and needless to say, Mr. Lipton was never impressed.).
Modern politicians are, for better or worse, performers – and to be successful, they must establish a genuine connection with their audience. Of course, they have to be serious too (Herman Cain was a natural performer, but he had nothing of substance to back it up). But they must get the public to buy their performance, and above all, seem comfortable in their own skin. Romney never did.