The moment of truth is about to arrive for Mitt Romney. Though one of his advisers was quoted recently as saying, “I don’t see any scenario where we’re not the nominee,” the former Massachusetts governor needs to finish in the top tier in Iowa on Tuesday and notch a decisive victory the following week in his neighboring state of New Hampshire. If he can’t pull that off, he could still lose the Republican nomination.
Romney has been a front-runner for much of the past year, but support for his candidacy has hovered around 20 percent. And that ceiling is an obstacle for a presidential candidate who describes himself as the most electable and whose strongest arguments revolve around his potential performance in a general election and his real-world experience.
Changes in the Republican nominating process this cycle, particularly allocating delegates proportionally in the early primaries and caucuses, mean that it will be nearly impossible for Romney or any other Republican to achieve an early victory, as Sen. John McCain and George W. Bush did in the most recent GOP nominating contests.
I have worked on presidential campaigns for five Democratic nominees and produced hundreds of television ads for political candidates across the country and around the world. While many think that TV ads are a dying form of communication, I believe they could be the decisive factor in this campaign. That’s why the Republican candidates and their super PACS spent more than $10 million in Iowa in December, and why a barrage of negative ads against former House speaker Newt Gingrich took him from first in Iowa to a distant third place in some polls.
If Romney runs the right ads — which he has the resources to do — he can seal the nomination, even if a surge by Ron Paul or Rick Santorum spoils his day in Iowa.
I saw firsthand the impact of powerful primary advertising with a number of the candidates I worked for, including Mike Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry. The biographical ad we produced for Gore in the fall of 1999, when he trailed Sen. Bill Bradley by 10 points in New Hampshire, positioned the vice president to win in the Granite State in 2000; the emotional ad for Kerry in Iowa featuring one of his swift boat crewmates had an enormous impact on voters there. And the devastating negative attack that we launched for Dukakis against Rep. Dick Gephardt, calling him a “flip-flopper” after he won Iowa, helped lead Dukakis to victories in a number of states on Super Tuesday.
As an admaker speaking from the safe sidelines of the other party, I believe that Romney is only three ads away from winning the Republican nomination.
The first ad Romney should produce is a testimonial featuring his wife talking about her husband’s character and the fact that he has supported her through her fight with multiple sclerosis. This spot would be the most effective kind of positive ad, one that promotes a candidate while cutting deeply against an opponent’s most conspicuous weaknesses — in this case, Gingrich’s adultery. It would also showcase Romney as a steady person of integrity, a contrast with the outrageous statements published in a newsletter that bore Paul’s name. Ann Romney can make a simple but powerful argument that her husband stood by her through tough times — her illness — and that he is prepared to stand by America in tough times as well.