Romney Should Seek a Big Win

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Karl Rove described Mitt Romney's electoral strategy as being as simple as 3-2-1.  Beginning from the base of states that John McCain carried in 2008 (plus the single electoral vote that Obama carried in Nebraska that year), a Romney victory requires only three steps.  First, he needs to win back Republican-leaning Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.  Second, he needs to take Florida and Ohio, two states that George W. Bush won in both 2000 and 2004 and that were relatively close in 2008.  Finally, having done that, he needs to win just a single additional swing state -- take your pick from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, or New Mexico -- in order to secure the presidency.  As expected, given that Rove is perhaps the only man living who can claim to have masterminded two victorious campaigns for the presidency, this is sound advice.  However, if you examine the contours of the battlefield closely, it becomes increasingly clear that an opportunity exists for Governor Romney to reach for the kind of expansive national victory that no Republican has been able to achieve for a generation.  In order to gain the sort of broad mandate that will be useful to back the kind of changes that the next president will need to drive, Romney ought to adopt a strategy that seeks as large a win as possible.

It was possible, working from history, to predict that that Romney would be the Republican nominee for president.  His nomination conformed to two clear patterns that have persisted in almost every contest for the GOP nomination in the modern age: that Republicans almost always nominate the early frontrunner and that said frontrunner has, with only a handful of exceptions, already run for president at least once before.  Similarly, studying the history of recent presidential elections, it is possible to draw some conclusions upon which Republicans can anchor a strategy for the fall.

There have been ten general elections since the Second World War in which an incumbent president has been a candidate for re-election.  Seven of those presidents were re-elected, and three were defeated.  Looking at those numbers, it seems that the conventional wisdom -- that incumbent presidents tend to get re-elected, and therefore Obama ought to be considered the favorite -- is correct.  However, this sample size is distorted by the presence of a number of elections where the outcome was never in serious doubt.  In 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, and 1996, it was fairly clear -- certainly by this point in the race -- what the final outcome would be.  While there would be momentary flickers in each race, there was never any point where it appeared likely that Dole would defeat Clinton or Goldwater LBJ (absent some sort of world-shaking event).  That leaves us with a much smaller number of elections to consider: 1948, 1976, 1980, 1992, and 2004.

Nineteen forty-eight is an odd case.  Truman's comeback victory after a decisive defeat during his first midterm elections, achieved by running against a Republican Congress and by reviving the embers of the old FDR coalition, is obviously one that Obama would like to emulate.  However, Truman was running in a very different media age against a candidate, in the form of New York Governor Tom Dewey, who could be described as complacent at best.  Truman was also able to convince voters by the use of naked demagoguery of a sort unlikely to be as effective in our more cynical age.  Finally, Truman was able to run for re-election with a booming economy to support him through his desperate sprint.

Nineteen seventy-six is interesting as well.  For all that he was depicted by the media as a bumbler, Gerald Ford -- who was at points thirty points behind Jimmy Carter in the polls -- nearly came back to win even after almost being defeated for the Republican nomination by Ronald Reagan.  Like Truman, Ford was able to come back through a dogged campaign and because the American people had serious (and, as it would turn out, entirely justified) doubts about his opponent, who committed a series of gaffes throughout the later stages of the campaign. 

Nineteen eighty, in some ways, provides a best-case model for Romney in terms of results, with Ronald Reagan having won a sweeping 489-electoral-vote victory that saw the major networks declare Reagan the president-elect before the polls had even closed on the West Coast.  However, what's often forgotten now is that the candidates were close in the polls throughout the campaign, with many Americans having serious reservations about some combination of Reagan's abilities and views (hence the desperate consideration, in the summer, of having Gerald Ford serve as Reagan's running mate).  In one sense, Romney is starting in a stronger position than Reagan in that few doubt -- despite a lame Obama campaign effort to create some in recent days -- his ability to be president.  Nor, reflecting the country's shift to the right, is Romney considered to be ideologically radical in the way that Reagan was.

Like 1980 and 1976, 1992 was a year in which many Americans had serious concerns about the ability of the challenger.  Additionally, of course, there were questions about Bill Clinton's character that were never really satisfactorily resolved.  However, with the Cold War over -- and with Ross Perot splitting the vote -- enough Americans decided to take a chance on Bill Clinton to put him in the White House.

It's notable that in every election where an incumbent president was defeated, many Americans only hesitantly embraced candidates whom, for one reason or another, they were not fully comfortable with.  Both Carter and George H.W. Bush lost by large margins but, at the same time, because of the reluctance of many Americans to support their opponents.  It is not difficult to construct plausible scenarios under which either a different campaign or some external event might have led to their winning re-election. 

As alternative presidents go, Romney passes every plausible test of capability, character, and ideological positioning.  Certainly, it is difficult to argue that someone who has served as the governor of a major state and led an international event as large as the Olympics, and who has extensive experience in the private sector, is not qualified to be president of the United States.  Claims to the contrary are likely, as they already have been, to be mocked.  Likewise, all of the Obama campaign's attempts to date to invent supposed "character" issues for Governor Romney have ranged from trivial to petty to absurd.  The number of voters who care about alleged high school bullying nearly fifty years ago enough to change their votes is probably much smaller than that of those who will cast their ballots based upon the respective astrological signs of the candidates.  In terms of ideology, a long primary season filled with attacks upon Romney for being allegedly insufficiently conservative has almost certainly insulated him against charges that he's some sort of extremist.

Based upon this, the clear model for the Obama campaign has to be the re-election campaign of George W. Bush in 2004.  Like Obama, Bush faced an opponent from Massachusetts who, if he did not really excite anyone all that much (and who, for various reasons, enraged portions of the Republican base), was a perfectly plausible alternative president.  Bush couldn't run a campaign arguing, as many incumbents have, this his challenger was obviously either too radical or too inexperienced to sit in the Oval Office.  Instead, Bush ran a campaign based upon maximizing the turnout of his own base -- conservatives, evangelical voters, and foreign policy hawks -- and was able to claw his way to a narrow victory during relatively good economic times.

Obama seems, based on recent events, to be clearly following this strategy.  Not a day appears to go by in which the president -- who rose to such heights by promising to heal the divisions in America -- tries to incite some narrow interest group to wage war against his opponent.  Obama hopes that some mix of the young, women, minorities, and gays can carry him to a narrow victory in November.  If this sounds like a desperate strategy to you, that's because it is.  Deprived of the ability to run on his record or to argue that Romney is either unqualified or too extreme to be president, the only real chance that President Obama has of winning another term -- absent some strange event -- is to thread a demographic needle.

I don't think that's likely.  My belief, which I will restate here, is that Mitt Romney is likely to be the 45th president.  However, decisions made now will have a profound effect upon what happens after he is sworn into office next January 20.  President Romney's first and overriding priority will have to be the restoration of the nation's finances, a program that will require large cuts in the budget and a major entitlement reforms.  The larger the mandate that Romney can win -- and the more Republicans whom he can carry into Congress with him -- the more successful he will be in getting his reforms speedily enacted. 

Given the Republican tactics used versus President Obama and the increasing polarization of the country, some sort of program of massive resistance to any Republican program of reforms seems to be inevitable.  Now, knowing this and expecting this in advance will give a Romney administration some advantages.  Advance awareness of the intentions of the opposition will allow the new president to avoid walking into a major ambush and to push through a financial program that will inevitably come down to a majority vote -- probably in the late Spring of 2013 -- on a reform/budget package that will bypass a Democratic filibuster in the Senate by using the budget reconciliation process.  Given the increasing tendency of the left around the world -- in Wisconsin, in Greece, and even in Quebec -- to resort to disruptive street demonstrations and worse when they do not get their way about public policy issues, it seems probable that the opposition to Romney's reforms will spill outside the political arena.

Given this, the larger the mandate that Governor Romney can win, the better he will be positioned to push back when the inevitable showdown arrives.  This means that, without going overboard, the governor's campaign should seek to push beyond the boundaries of the states that George Bush won in his victories.  A win in the Bush states will give Romney the White House, but victories in states that Republicans haven't carried in a generation -- in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and perhaps even places like New Jersey and Oregon -- will give a President Romney the sort of broad national support that he's going to require to win once he's already won the White House.

Adam Yoshida is a political commentator and the author of A Land War in Asia.