The last several weeks have been the worst of Mitt Romney’s political career, an awful run capped on Monday night by the release of a secretly-filmed videotape of the GOP nominee seemingly writing off the votes of 47 percent of the electorate.
But, as we noted in our analysis of what Romney said — and what it will mean to him politically –jumping to the conclusion that he has now lost the race a full seven weeks before votes are cast is premature.
There are always second (and third and fourth) acts in American politics. Below we lay out how Romney can move beyond the videotape in the time left to him in this race.
* Lean into the turn: Everyone gets knocked down in politics. Not everyone gets up. Hard as it might be to see at the moment for the Romney team, opportunity exists in this crisis. If Romney can beat back this spate of negative headlines, he could well emerge in a month’s time on the receiving end of a series of “what didn’t kill Mitt Romney made him stronger” stories. This could be the moment where a campaign that has been drifting a bit message-wise — certainly since the Republican convention — gets the wake-up call it needs to sharpen up. As many people have pointed out in the last 24 hours, a bad September isn’t determinative of the outcome of an election. (See George W. Bush in September 2000 as an example.) A bad October on the other hand usually spells the end of the end. Romney needs to use a bad September — or at least a bad first few weeks of the month — to tighten his messaging and close strong on the economy. If he does, these past two weeks will be nothing more than a footnote on the history of his campaign.
* A rural tour: As we wrote earlier today, the political problem with Romney’s “47 percent” argument is that it ignores the fact that lots of lower-income voters are either part of the Republican base or persuadable to the GOP message because of values questions. In the wake of his comments, Romney needs to show that he understands how critical the values message is to lots and lots of people who should be voting for him this fall. Romney needs badly to show these folks that he is not just a wealthy businessman who cares about taxes and nothing else. He needs to look them in the eye and make clear he gets them. And that he gets them more than does President Obama. What better way to do that then a bus tour through rural areas in southern Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin? Three days worth of positive headlines in small newspapers and cable stations with genuine penetration into these rural markets doesn’t hurt either.
* Win the first debate: Assuming that the average undecided voter is paying close attention to every jot and tittle of this “47 percent” controversy is a mistake. Undecided voters — at this point in the cycle — tend to be just the sort of low information voters who might well miss all (or most) of the story. What they won’t miss is the first presidential debate (on Oct. 3) and the resultant coverage from that night. If Romney can score a clear win in that first set-to with Obama, the storyline can and likely does change — with the GOP nominee cast as the aggressor able to knock the incumbent on his heels. In our estimation, the first debate matters more than the second or third because it is a) the first up on the calendar and therefore leaves the most time for the narrative of the race to change and b) it’s the one that many undecideds will tune into in order to get their first (or last) impression of the two men. And, we all know that first impressions matter a lot in life and politics.
* A big speech (with specifics!): On Monday morning, the Romney campaign held a conference call to make clear that they were planning to move into a new phase of the race where the candidate would begin offering specifics on exactly what he would do if he is elected president. While that re-booting got totally overrun by events, it’s still a sound strategic idea. If Romney was to deliver a detailed-laden (or even detail-sprinkled) speech on what, specifically, he might do in his first 100 days to turn the economy around, it would be hard for the media not to cover it and pore through the proposals to see if they indeed could work. A debate over the specific differences in the policy directions that the two presidential candidates want to take the country — particularly at a time when polls show a majority of voters disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the economy — is far more winnable than the current fight in which Romney is engaged.
* Get lucky: Ok, this isn’t one that Romney can really affect but it matters nonetheless. If nothing else major happens news-wise in the country (and the world) to knock this video story off the front pages/lead of cable news shows it’s bad news for Romney. He needs the public’s attention to move on from this to some other major story so that he can get back to talking about what he wants to be talking about without constantly being dogged by questions about the “47 percent” comments. Remember that the best politicians are also among the luckiest — see Obama, Barack — and this is one time where Romney needs to rub a rabbit’s foot and hope it works.