Don't Blame Mitt

It’s not unusual for a flailing presidential campaign to air its dirty laundry ahead of the election; staffers will use the media to place blame where they think it resides, to avoid responsibility for losing the White House, and leave themselves room for future employment.

What is unusual is for this to happen in September, when voters are just beginning to tune in to the election and both candidates have a chance to convert new supporters and energize old ones. Which is why it was a shock to see Politico headlined by a clear attempt to blame adviser Stuart Stevens for the campaign’s string of missteps and stumbles.

I don’t have words in defense or support of Stevens, and there isn’t much to glean from an anonymously sourced piece on the campaign; given the difference between where Romney is, consistently behind President Obama, and where Republicans thought he’d be—well ahead—it’s no surprise that there are angry staffers and disgruntled allies.

But buried in all of this is a question worth asking: Why is Romney behind? One view—shared by pundits, consultants, and assorted observers—is that Team Romney has failed to capitalize on favorable conditions and make a strong case for change to undecided voters. Another comes from Democratic partisans, who simply see Romney as a bad, unappealing candidate who can’t connect to the electorate.

There are elements of truth to both indictments. From the beginning of the general election, the Romney campaign has made baffling decisions about where it would focus its time and attention. Where most campaigns would devote the summer to fluffing their candidate with positive advertisements—and presenting him as a plausible president—Team Romney dove into negative advertising, hitting Obama over the economy with a torrent of ads. The problem, of course, is that most voters already have an opinion of Obama and the economy; advertisements aren’t going to budge the numbers enough for Romney to gain an advantage.

Likewise, rather than maintain a monomaniacal focus on the economy—and spend his time detailing concrete proposals for fixing conditions—Romney has given a large amount of time to foreign policy, spending a week abroad, and consistently hitting Obama for a (supposedly) soft approach to foreign affairs. This focus extends down to Paul Ryan, who was picked to talk policy but now spends his time as an attack dog on national security, despite his obvious inexperience.

These choices go a long way toward explaining Romney’s low favorability ratings and the fact that he no longer leads Obama on questions of economic competence. Romney wanted to run as an economic manager, but because of his refusal to define himself and stick to a single message, he has emerged as a generic Republican, with the ratings you would expect from a public unhappy with the Republican Party writ large.

Still, both explanations for Romney’s trouble miss a key fact about this election: The fundamentals are not in his favor. To wit, out of 13 models that measure economic and political fundamentals, eight give Obama a majority share of the two-party vote. The median Obama vote among the models? 50.6 percent. This isn’t a new point—I’ve made it on several occasions—but it’s worth repeating given Politico’s campaign-centric account of the election, and the general tendency to blame personalities.

The economy is bad, and unemployment is over 8 percent, but voters don’t evaluate presidents on the basis of absolute conditions. They look at change. Have things improved for my family? Have they improved for my community? Do I feel more optimistic about the future? Voters might not know much about politics and government, but they’re sophisticated enough to understand the context of an election. Conditions have improved enough since the Great Recession for voters to want to stick with the same guy, even if he hasn’t brought the economy to full recovery.

It’s not so much that Romney is a bad candidate (though evidence is mounting) as much as it is that he’s running in an unfavorable environment. Indeed, if the Romney campaign has made a mistake, it’s in overestimating the degree to which the economy favored their candidate.

When it comes to Romney’s performance, it’s worth doing a thought experiment. There were four other plausible nominees in the Republican field this year: Tim Pawlenty, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum. Pick one to replace Romney. Would the election look any different? The particulars might change, but the landscape would be exactly the same.

Yes, Team Romney is losing, but in a lot of ways, it isn’t their fault.