Living outside the US, I did not follow the 2012 presidential campaign as obsessively as I have followed previous elections. Well before Mitt Romney secured the GOP nomination, it seemed obvious to me there was little drama to this election cycle, and little doubt about the outcome: the Republican was going to lose the presidency, like the Democrats lost the presidency in 2004, due to the challenger’s inconsistent, incoherent message and his party’s weakness; and the incumbent’s organizational strengths and historical advantages.
I had a few days of doubt about that thesis after the first debate, but it held up in the end.
Just as John Kerry never really had much of a chance against George W. Bush, Mitt Romney never really had much of a chance against Barack Obama, for several reasons.
1) “I Was For It Before I Was Against It.”
Kerry, as senator, voted to authorize the war in Iraq. He said he was for the war before he was against it, which made a great attack ad, and therefore looked inconsistent and cravenly partisan in his turn-around on Iraq. Romney championed health care reform as governor of Massachusetts, including an individual mandate. He was for health care reform before he was against it, and looked inconsistent and cravenly partisan in his turn-around on health care. When the US Supreme Court, led by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, ratified the constitutionality of Obamacare, it took an important issue away from the Republicans.
2) Not Enough Crossover Appeal.
Both Kerry and Romney were patricians — wealthy men without much of a common touch. Kerry came from a state, Massachusetts, that was so solidly Democratic Kerry rarely had to develop cross-over appeal.
As a Republican governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Romney established a moderate record, worked with Democrats to get things done and developed at least some cross-over appeal. But this proved to be a weakness in the Republican primaries: the base didn’t trust Romney, and they were in no mood for compromise. Many conservatives felt betrayed by George W. Bush’s fiscal policies — interfering in the free market with a big bank bailout and by John McCain’s support of the bailout. Romney felt he had to bend over backwards to mollify these people, to become “severely conservative” — and to reverse himself on issues like abortion, gun control, gay rights, immigration, health care reform, global warming, deficit reduction and raising taxes. He raised numerous fees as governor, but insisted he would never raise fees or taxes as president. Apparently insecure that he might lose the Republican nomination to a more conservative candidate like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, Romney felt he had to tack to the right. But this hurt him in the general election. By the time he was nominated, thanks in part to Obama attack ads running all summer, Romney had little crossover appeal to moderate swing voters.
3) Fomenting Hatred, Dislike Or Dissent Against the Incumbent Is Rarely A Winning Strategy
One of my rules of successful presidential campaigns is you have to persuade people to vote FOR something, not just against something. Ronald Reagan offered a positive vision in 1980 — he didn’t just harness discontent against Jimmy Carter. He wanted to cut taxes, reduce domestic spending, unleash the American economy from regulation, hold up entrepreneurs and volunteers as heroes in a free market economy, and return the American military to former glory. In 2004 and 2012, sure there was popular discontent against the incumbent president. Sure, the Democratic base detested George W. Bush, and the Republican base detested Barack Obama. In 2004, there was outrage over the Iraq war and failure to find weapons of mass destruction. In both election years, there was frustration over relatively slow economic growth. But neither Kerry or Romney communicated positive, distinctively different visions for the country nor persuaded swing voters they could make their visions a reality.
4) Incumbent Presidents Usually Have Far Better Organizations. Several articles have been written about the Obama campaign’s highly sophisticated voter contact and get-out-the-vote campaign, built on data the campaign began collecting after Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, and refined constantly since then. Similarly, as I wrote before, the Bush campaign in 2004 was far more sophisticated in using the tools of technology than the Kerry campaign.
Neither Kerry nor Romney should feel too bad. I remember seeing one poll indicating that the only Democrat who could have beaten Bush in 2004 was Bill Clinton, who was constitutionally prohibited from running. I doubt any Republican could have beaten Barack Obama in 2012.