I am going to the Republican convention in Tampa with an open mind. Think of me as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the wisdom of Republicanism.
I’ve erased from my mental databank the sad spectacle of the Republican primaries. Gone are the 20 debates where the candidates on stage were overshadowed by Tea Party audiences cheering the death of a senior citizen without health care; the carpet-bombing TV ads that the Romney Super PAC laid on Newt Gingrich in Iowa; Gingrich’s retaliatory attack on Romney’s Bain years as “a bunch of rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company;” and Rick Santorum’s fear that Romney will be the worst possible Republican to oppose President Obama because Obamacare is essentially the same legislation he supported as Governor of Massachusetts.
All is forgiven as the Republicans gather in Tampa to nominate Mitt Romney as their standard bearer. There are bigger fish to fry.
No Summer of Love
It hasn’t exactly been a Summer of Love on the campaign trail. Romney’s refusal to reveal the source of his $250 million net worth, or the taxes he paid on it, gnaws at the media––and the Obama campaign. Obama and his Super PAC have hammered hard at Romney’s status in the upper crust 1%, flooding the swing states with over $100 million in TV advertising to drive home the point. Romney and his Super PACs, meanwhile, have spent an even larger amount on ads portraying the president as a bungling novice clueless about how to fix the economy. And that was before the campaign got ugly, deceitful, and downright nasty.
40 States That Don’t Matter
If you don’t follow Twitter politics, or don’t have a horse in this race, or live in the 40 states that neither side considers up for grabs, you are probably unaware of the intensity of the TV advertising. But Beth Fouhy of the Associated Press has been keeping track: In the months after Romney was declared the presumptive Republican nominee, both sides have spent $350 million (as of August 4)) on largely negative ads –– almost all in the ten swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada.
If you live in the greater metropolitan area of Cleveland, Ohio, for instance, you are likely to have seen 87 presidential campaign ads a week this summer; If you live around Orlando, Florida, you’ll have seen 70 a week. The irony in this, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala points out, is that all that money is being spent trying to win over fewer than one million undecided voters. Or maybe some other dynamic is at work.
Minds Made Up
Polls consistently show that 95 percent of American voters have already made up their minds: 47.5 percent will vote for President Obama and 47.5 percent will vote for Mitt Romney. The “undecideds” this year are fewer than they have been in 20 years of polling. “There’s a very small slice of people who are genuinely undecided, but it’s enough to win,” Romney’s political director Rich Besson told the New York Times. But the political advertising so far has been so ubiquitous––and negative––many political operatives are questioning whether more ads will sway any voters.
The more likely scenario is that the negative advertising will turn off undecided voters, casting “a plague on both your houses” that will keep them away from the polls. That leaves the outcome of the November election in the hands of partisans on both sides, and explains, perhaps, why the broadsides this year are so incendiary.
Republican attacks on President Obama for taking the work out of welfare (patently untrue) re-enforce the Republican bromide that the president is taking the country down the road to socialism. Democratic attacks on Bain Capital’s plant closing––including one worker’s testimony that his wife died of cancer shortly after he lost his job (also untrue) –– paint Romney’s economic recovery plan as a loaded gun pointed at the head of the middle class.
A Turnout Election
It’s all part of stirring up the base, and that’s what makes this presidential election a “turnout” election––more like the 2004 presidential race between George Bush and John Kerry than the “change” election that swept President Obama into office four years ago.
In a year when the bloom is off the rose of Obama’s Hope, and Democratic registration is down in nearly all the swing states, this doesn’t bode well for the president. The depth of the recession he inherited is a fading memory for most voters; the slow recovery a more immediate concern. Even so, during the primary season, none of the Republican challengers appeared to pose a threat to the president. It was an unspectacular field and Romney was less than forthright in articulating a new vision for America (or even a consistent one). He triumphed with a smooth, highly-effective campaign organization. Now what the New York Times calls his “shape-shifting” political persona works in his favor.
With the selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate, Romney has given up the pretense that he is a moderate businessman who can appeal to independents. He is locked into a social agenda aligned with the Michele Bachmanns of the party (see Todd Akin re: abortion) and harnessed to a House Republican agenda that prefers national bankruptcy to compromise. But he remains in many ways a man without a cause –– other than to unseat President Obama– and doesn’t mind being the figurehead for whatever Republicans want to believe he is, as long as they turn out and vote.
In the slick staging Republicans are planning for the convention prime time, Romney 2.0 will be the face of the Republican Party, though not necessarily its voice. Thirteen widescreen televisions behind the podium will overflow with images of a Republican America. The banner above the stage will say “Believe in America” but the message to the Republican faithful is “Believe in Yourself.” You are the majority; you just have to prove it with your votes.
A Karl Rove Resurgence
The force behind this latest Romney re-incarnation is Karl Rove, the former political adviser to George Bush, who last masterminded President George Bush’s 2004 victory over John Kerry. Rove’s Crossroads GPS Super Pac has been guiding the Republican comeback since the 2010 off-year elections. It has also been the leading purveyor of anti-Obama ads over the summer. Rove holds no official position in the Romney campaign. (In fact, he will be a convention commentator on Fox TV News.) But there are so many tie lines between Crossroads GPS and the Romney campaign it’s not hard to see Rove’s hand in the new Romney.
For Rove, converting Obama supporters––or independents, for that matter––is an uphill battle. It is easier to turn out frustrated Republicans, a strategy he proved in 2004 when he turned President Bush’s certain defeat into a re-election victory by finding four million new Republican voters in the hitherto ignored evangelical grassroots (and even then, the margin of victory was 118,000 votes in Ohio).
Rove is a masterful political mechanic. His 2004 strategy involved data-mining church rolls, credit card records, and other databases for people with Republican-leaning tendencies, then flooding direct mail pieces into their homes. Eight years later, data-mining is old hat and the databases have been pretty much dredged out by both parties. Social media is the new direct mail (and Obama’s Chicago campaign office is heavy into it). But when money is no object, which seems to be the case this year, there’s nothing more direct than a TV ad in primetime warning Republicans that if they don’t turn out, we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.
[Update: I would be remiss not to mention that Karl Rove has an opinion piece out today in the Wall Street Journal that directly refutes my turnout election theory. “The 2012 Battle for the ‘Undecideds'” uses Gallup Poll tracking numbers to argue Obama support is soft and undecided voters are critical. Without going into my disagreements with his interpretation of 2004 results, methinks the wily strategist protests too much.]
Tampa Here We Come
I’m not going to Tampa to expose some dark side of Mitt Romney. This is his convention. His people are in charge. Romney 2.0 will roll out on TV just the way they want it to. In the one hour a night the major networks are devoting to the convention, Romney ought to come across as a pretty credible, even attractive candidate.
It’s the voices of the other 2,286 delegates I’ll be listening to because, if Mitt Romney is the face of Republicanism this year, they are its beating heart. So maybe we should pay a little more attention to what they are saying because, if Romney wins, they’re going to be running the country.
As I said, I’m going with an open mind. I can’t predict what will happen. But I can tell you this: Finding the heart of the Republican Party won’t be easy.
Stump Connolly, chief political correspondent of The Week Behind, will be writing daily reports from Tampa starting Monday, August 27. Subscribe to our email list or like The Week Behind on Facebook to get an alert when his stories are posted.