What Mitt Romney did right

November 29, 2012

In an op-ed for the Washington Post on Wednesday, Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Mitt Romney's unsuccessful presidential candidacy, made the case that his candidate did lots (and lots) of things right in the race.


Wrote Stevens: 

"Nobody liked Romney except voters. What began in a small field in New Hampshire grew into a national movement. It wasn’t our campaign, it was Romney. He bested the competition in debates, and though he was behind almost every candidate in the GOP primary at one time or the other, he won the nomination and came very close to winning the presidency."

While we don't agree with everything Stevens wrote in the piece -- to call Romney's candidacy a "national movement" seems, well, overstated -- it did get us to thinking about what the Republican nominee did do right in the 2012 race.

And, though the things Romney did wrong -- failing to cast himself as something other than a Daddy Warbucks figure, misunderstanding the changing face of the American electorate, failing to match Democrats' ground game -- have received the lion's share of attention (and rightly so, given the fact that he lost), it's also worth looking back at the race that was to see what Romney did right.

Here's our take -- as culled from conversations with a variety of Republican operatives. Agree or disagree? The comments section is all yours.

* He raised the money: At the start of the 2012 campaign, most Republicans saw President Obama's fundraising potential as one of the major hurdles their side would need to overcome.  While the Obama team pooh-poohed the idea he would be the first $1 billion candidate, it's a near-certainty that when the final math on the 2012 cycle is done that the incumbent will have crested that lofty territory. Even so, Romney was Obama's equal in the fundraising department and even had more money to spend than the incumbent in the final two and a half weeks of the race

* He avoided infighting: Sure, toward the end of the race there were a handful of blame-game stories that focused on Stevens' outsized role in the campaign's senior leadership. But, by and large, the Romney inner political circle remained remarkably cohesive -- a major contrast to the backbiting, departures and overall chaos that defined Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2008. And, according to those who traveled with the campaign or its surrogates, the "road show" -- the candidate's team on the campaign trail -- ran smoothly and maximized the time of Romney (and his surrogates). There is a more legitimate debate about whether, from a broader strategic perspective, Romney was spending his time in the right places, but hindsight on those sorts of things is always 20-20.

* He debated well: Compare Romney's performance across the three debates with that of McCain in 2008 or George W. Bush in 2004 (and, to a lesser extent, 2000) and it's clear that Romney was the best of the bunch. Romney turned in a bravura showing in the first debate and was steady, if not as spectacular, in the two ensuing debates. You can debate about who ultimately "won" the debates -- see what we did there? -- but we would give the edge to Romney since his showing in the first set-to was so dominant and came at such a critical time in the campaign.

* He won "economy" voters: According to the national exit poll, roughly six in 10 voters said that the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Among that group, Romney took 51 percent to Obama's 47 percent -- a mirror image of the overall national popular vote. The election, of course, wound up being about more than just the economy. But if you had told Republicans at the start of the election that they would win among voters who said the economy mattered most, they would tell you they felt good about their chances.

Obviously, Romney didn't do enough right to counteract what he did wrong -- or the longer-term ills that ail the party. (Hispanics, anyone?)  But, as Stevens rightly notes, there is a tendency when a candidate loses a high-profile contest to assume there are no positive lessons to be learned from the race for the defeated side.  That's a short-sighted (and wrong) assumption. Whoever wants to be the party's next presidential nominee in 2016 would do well to study not just what Romney got wrong in 2012, but what he got right as well.

Rounds will announce Thursday: Former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds (R), who opened an exploratory committee recently for Sen. Tim Johnson's (D-S.D.) seat, is set to make his plans official on Thursday.

It would be surprising if Rounds opted not to run. His early move seemed a tell-tale sign of somebody gearing up for a major campaign, and he has scheduled three stops Thursday, which isn't something you do when you're not running.

By getting in this early, Rounds could forestall any maneuvering from other ambitious Republicans. He exited office after the 2010 election with a good approval rating, so there's little reason to believe he'll face a tough primary.

Johnson has yet to say whether he will seek reelection, but he is considered one of the more likely retirements in the Class of 2014. If he doesn't run, former congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin would likely be Democrat's top choice to replace him.

Rounds would be the GOP's second big-name recruit in a red state this week. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) jumped into the race for Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) seat on Monday.

McIntyre opponent concedes: Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) has officially won reelection, with his opponent conceding late Wednesday.

McIntyre grew his already-slim lead slightly after a recount and led by 663 votes. State Sen. David Rouzer (R) said in a statement: "I have called Congressman McIntyre to congratulate him on a hard-fought victory."

McIntyre, one of the biggest survivors in Congress, wins in one of the toughest districts held by a Democrat after Republicans targeted him and three of his Democratic colleagues from North Carolina. His new district would have gone 58 percent for McCain in 2008. Democrats lost those other three seats.

Fixbits:

Romney is having lunch with Obama on Thursday.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) isn't on-board with Rep. Tom Cole's (R-Okla.) call for the GOP to temporarily agree to Obama's deal on allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire.

Cole defends his idea.

President Obama likes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) plan to require filibustering senators to actually speak on the floor of the Senate. But there is plenty of resistance.

Obama gives Susan Rice a vote of confidence in a cabinet meeting.

Retiring Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), a day after his son Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the GOP was at risk of becoming "a dinosaur," calls both parties dinosaurs.

A bipartisan group of House members have begun plotting an immigration compromise.

Convicted former congressman Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.) will officially run for former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s (D-Ill.) seat in the upcoming special election. Reynolds's conviction in the mid-1990s actually jump-started the career of one Barack Obama.

Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is reportedly being vetted by the Obama Administration.

Must-reads:

 "McConnell's Unseen Hand at the NRSC" -- David M. Drucker, Roll Call

"Now Touring, the Debt Duo, Simpson-Bowles" -- Jackie Calmes, New York Times

"The Science Behind Those Obama Campaign E-Mails" -- Joshua Green, Businessweek 

"Inside the talks: Fiscal framework emerges" -- Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Politico

"Fight over Susan Rice holds political risks for White House" -- Ann Gerhart and Steven Mufson, Washington Post

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Sean Sullivan | November 28, 2012