Friday, November 2, 2012

Mitt Romney's Really, *Really* Bad Week

Seven days ago, the 2012 Presidential election was close -- to be sure closer than it should've been in the absence of the Denver debate -- with Barack Obama leading on the rail by a neck. He was up by about two points in Ohio and about three points in Nevada, with Iowa, Colorado and Virginia tied. Mr. Romney was narrowly ahead in Florida and North Carolina, but the dynamics of the race in these two places were suggesting to some pretty smart people (Nate Silver, among them) that things weren't really that close. Romney's path to electoral college victory was simple, if not enviable: Close the gap in Ohio, hold in North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.  Doing so would have been an upset, but a mild one, mostly involving a gotcha pickup in the Buckeye state.

Seven days later the map isn't really all that different, or at least doesn't immediately *sound* all that different in laundry-list form like this: Mr. Romney is narrowly ahead in North Carolina and Colorado, with Florida and Virginia more-or-less tied, and Mr. Obama leading in Iowa and Nevada and Ohio. Why is it, then, that the state-of-the-race feels so completely different?

The easy answer is that the week Mr. Romney just had is one of the worst of his entire campaign -- and after London and 47%-gate, that's definitely saying something -- and the polls really haven't caught up yet. State-level polling is notoriously slow to respond to the changing realities on the ground, since polls have to be in the field over multiple days, then regressed, then scrutinized for math errors, then written-up, then published by the polling firm, and then re-published by political news sites, all before any of us get a chance to begin factoring them into our sense of where things stand. The data is often over a week old, and even some of that data will itself display a conspicuous lag, as individual respondents in the process of changing their mind will often exhibit more stubbornness about it than they really feel, just to avoid having to re-reverse themselves a day or two latter.

The slightly less easy answer, though, is that while the two lists of swing-state standings I've digested in the opening two paragraphs sound cosmetically similar, the new list actually describes an electoral map in positive *shambles* for Mr. Romney -- even before the effects of this past week can fully manifest there. The only way, then, to accurately report in real time on the question of just how much things have  turned, is to begin with a recap of the seven days that Mr. Romney has just had. And oh my goodness, what a week it was.

It actually started eight days ago, with Colin Powell's surprise endorsement of President Obama for a second term. Actually surprise might be a bit too strong a word: General Powell has never been a cheerleader for the new style of fascistic Republican mendacity, after all. But surely the Romney campaign would have preferred things to be different. As Mark Halperin and many others have said, when you're trailing in an election you have to win every news cycle--and there could have been little chance that Romney's camp was going to win a news cycle in which one of the most highly respected political voices in the country was publicly announcing his intentions to support the other ticket.

It didn't really have to be all that bad: Endorsements rarely move the needle all that much, and even a somewhat unexpected one is just as likely to be forgotten as remembered by anyone left in the country who might be persuaded about which way to cast his vote. As many highly placed Democrats endorsed John McCain in 2008 as Republicans who endorsed Barack Obama (one each, by my count), and it seems improbable that the effects on Mr. Obama's candidacy were markedly different than on that of Mr. McCain. As long as the red team was able to move quickly on, the damage would presumably be minimal.

Enter Mitt Romney's national campaign co-chair, one John Sununu. A man so caustic and unlikeable that he was eventually dismissed as Chief of Staff of one of the most caustic and unlikeable Presidents in the nation's history, George Bush Sr. On Friday morning, with very little bidding from Piers Morgan, Mr. Sununu explicitly declared that General Powell's decision to once again endorse President Obama was motivated by race. The national media, which for several weeks had been unusually credulous in its acceptance of Team Boathouse's comeback narrative, was galvanized to the sort of shaming-response that we used to expect from our nation's journalists as a matter of basic job description.

Several hours later the Tea Party candidate for U.S. Senate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock, could be heard to say that a pregnancy resulting from rape was a gift from almighty God that was meant to happen, and that the pregnancy must therefore not be terminated. Now, some witless hillbilly deciding to echo the bizarrely unhinged rape-pregnancy sentiments of Todd Akin and Roger Rivard (and, by the way, Paul Ryan) isn't exactly game-changing material in this year's Presidential horse race, much as it should be. In this matter, if none other, it may well be that Mr. Romney's ubiquitous reputation as a flip-flopper actually helps to immunize him a little from the obvious virus of fallout-by-association: Surely a man lacking in even basic human integrity would never choose to hoist himself on so zealous a petard as this. Only there was a problem: Mourdock turns out to be the only candidate for U.S. Senate -- anywhere in the country (!) -- to have been endorsed by Mitt Romney.

When you're trying to make up three points in the state next door, and quickly running out of time with which to do so, this may not be exactly the last thing you needed, but it's pretty doggone close. Especially since the spill-over coverage would affect the western half of the Buckeye state, where Romney needs to run up a huge score to overtake the President's strong support in the auto-manufacturing areas in the north and east.

On Sunday the Romney campaign tipped its hand on just how bad Ohio was looking for them, by resorting to a desperately false television commercial, in which it is claimed that the auto bailout has resulted, and will continue to result, in auto manufacturing jobs being taken out of Ohio and moved to China. Within a matter of minutes several key newspapers in Michigan and Ohio were reporting on the content of the ad -- and sparing no punches as to its shameless, militant falsehood. On Monday it was reported that Mr. Romney was using his religion to evade income taxes and, as a sign of just how noncompetitive this supposedly tied election is, barely anyone even bothered to notice. Perhaps because another story to break on the same day showed President Obama was well ahead in early voting in two supposedly competitive states, Nevada and Iowa.

Tuesday was National Hurricane Sandy day, of course, and with it came the news that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie manages to occasionally like a little bit of government in his life, after all. The story of Christie's de facto bear hug of the President went viral through all corners of the amateur pundisphere, and would have been the single biggest embarrassment of the week for the Romney team, had the campaign not inflicted an even bigger one on itself the next day, Wednesday, when it decided to sloppily re-purpose an Ohio campaign rally into a hurricane relief rally, but forgot to tell the ticketed attendees. To avoid the embarrassment of empty donation tables, the campaign actually bought $5000 of storm-relief items from a nearby WalMart, then handed them to attendees in full view of the press, who then handed them back to the candidate.

All of this would have been bad enough, but the by-now thoroughly alienated press pool wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to ask the candidate about his previous, now absurdly wrong-headed statements about outsourcing FEMA's mission to the individual states. So ask him about it they did: Over the entire, palpably strained event, Mr. Romney was repeatedly asked if he would like to clarify his anti-FEMA comments and, instead of saying "yes, but not now," or, "I have no comment in the present context of this harrowing time of need," or even, "no comment, you liberal attack-dog scum," Romney completely ignored them. He turned to the journalists who were asking him a completely fair and relevant question about one of his many evident contradictions, and he looked them straight in the eye, one at a time, and said nothing. (On the plus-side, he didn't pin any of them to the ground and cut off their hair.)

And then came Thursday. First there was the news that the President's approval rating on his handling the hurricane response running roughly 80-20, and that respected conservative prognosticator Charlie Cook was moving North Carolina, Florida and Virginia back into toss-up status -- something that his three or four-point Republican house effect should've prevented from happening under nearly any imaginable circumstance at such a late point in the campaign. In Ohio the Obama team unleashed a positively devastating ad in response to the Romney bailout lie, and separate stories came out of Florida that the Democrats were trouncing the bad guys in early voting, and in voting by "sporadic voters" in the Sunshine State. Oh, and the president of the UAW announced his intention to file a formal ethics charge against Mr. Romney for hiding profits he'd personally made from the auto bailout, from his campaign finance disclosures.

Barely visible through the cordite-smoke of all these other rounds of incoming was the delicious little tidbit that a Republican superpac had apparently been quietly obtaining the records of which Republicans had voted and which hadn't, in this and previous elections. The purpose, chillingly, was to contact those who had not yet voted, by mail. Intended as a gentle nudge for those deserving of it, the effort has apparently backfired as an invasion of privacy so brazen as to be found offensive *even* by Republicans.

This is to say nothing of the fact that Mike Bloomberg announced a surprise endorsement of the President, the CEO of GM called a press conference to describe Romney's bailout lie as an alternate reality, and the VP of Chrylser called it "full of shit." And the candidate himself? Perhaps feeling left out of his own flogging for a day or so, Mr. Romney decided to pick this moment -- this, very, moment -- to insult the heritage of one of the most persuadable and by that measure crucial bloc of voters in the country, Italians.

Of all the single bad days Romney has had on the trail, it is my personal opinion that Thursday November 1st was comfortably the most devastating. More so than 47% day by a country mile. London doesn't even register, on this scale. It was one of the worst days a major candidate has had on the stump since George McGovern was blindsided with the news of his running-mate's electroshock treatments. Perhaps it was worse.

In such a context, the aforementioned polling data can be interpreted far more easily. And the interpretation is that it carries with it the very real possibility of an early and near-total humiliation for Romney this coming Tuesday evening, since none of this wreckage even shows up there yet.

Over the past week, Team Boathouse has traded a tie in Iowa for ties in Florida and Virginia -- states he simply must have taken from the board by now. Yes, the current state of the race sounds as if it has at least a modular similarity to that of last Thursday (ties in some states, narrow leads for each candidate in others), but except for North Carolina the *trends* are all in the same direction: small Romney leads have become ties, ties have become small Obama leads, small Obama leads have become bigger ones. Is it possible that Romney could make 270 electoral votes without Ohio? Yes, but he would need to run the table on the other battlegrounds, where his modest leads (Iowa and Virginia) have turned into either deficits or ties (respectively). Could he win without "holding" in Colorado? Sure: But he'd need to win all three of Virginia, Ohio, and Florida -- only two of which seemed likely before Powell, and perhaps as few as zero of them do now.

And the thing about that math is, it's inescapable. Slowly, inexorably, one might even say coolly, Team Blue is closing the deal and making a mockery out of the too-close-to-call narrative that the lazy mainstream press has found itself unable to relinquish in the days and weeks following Romney's Denver bounce. The popular vote victory that we were to accept as a Romney fait-accompli looks more like a deficit now, and the states in which some pro-Romney movement was always going to have to come first if such a popular advantage was to translate electorally, have instead been moving the *other* way, too. Most of all in the biggest battleground prize on the map. And no, not Ohio: Florida.

Mr. Romney simply cannot, cannot, cannot win without Florida, and in the past seven days he's gone from a 2-to-1 favorite here, to even-money or maybe a little worse. The early voting story, the sporadic voting story, the polls, the coverage, even this columnist's anecdotal assessment of the yard signs in his neighborhood all suggest the same, peaking-at-the-right-time mojo that the Obama team enjoyed at the same moment in the race four years ago. It's hard to be optimistic in a state governed by Rick Scott, but it does seem at least *plausible* that the good guys could indeed turn Mr. Scott's twenty-eight electoral vote plaything a pleasingly vibrant shade of blue. And that, all by itself, would be the last nail in the Romney coffin.

...All of which begs only the question, wouldn't it be ironic if the narrative on election night came down to Florida, and Ohio ended up not even making any difference? Kinda brings a smile to one's face, doesn't it.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

God, I love this. You are an incredible writer and I thank heaven you're on my team.