It’s hard to believe that it has been over a week since the 2012 campaign for president ended. Now that we know President Obama gets to keep his job for four more years, the media has turned away from the campaign trail to focus on playing the blame game.
Who ultimately caused the defeat of Mitt Romney? What moment was the pivotal moment where the G.O.P candidate lost ground and could never recover? What did the left say about the candidate to cause undecided voters to turn away from Romney’s promise of a stronger economy?
Many could point to Romney’s comment about 47% of the country as dependent on the government, others might say it was the lackluster support Romney had after winning the nomination. Ultimately, a combination of missteps from the loser, successes of the winner and everything in between determined the outcome, but there is one interesting theory about why Romney could not win over America. In the words of Tea Party member Amy Kremer: “he walked right in to the ‘Sandra Fluke’ narrative.”
Granted, she was referring to Richard Mourdock, the Senate candidate from Indiana who claimed that life, even in cases of rape, was something that “God intended to happen.” Kremer’s assertion can apply more broadly to Romney’s missteps during his campaign. The Democratic Party formulated an overall narrative that “Romney doesn’t care about x” and is “out-of-touch with x.” The “x” being minorities, women, middle class, poor and other key demographics that were likely to swing the election. Romney specifically stepped in two of these narratives:
1) Romney doesn’t care about the poor and middle class: Though he thought he was speaking privately to a group of donors, Romney’s comments from the event were the subject of media and internet attention for the rest of his campaign. When Romney said he could not win over the 47% of Americans who receive benefits from the government, it was implied that he did not care about them.
2) Romney doesn’t care about women: Though Romney tried his best to reinforce his respect for women, most notably by making his wife, Ann, a central figure of his campaign, the Democrat’s narrative of the entire G.O.P was too strong for him to overcome. One specific moment was during the second presidential debate when the candidates were asked about how each would address discrimination of women in the workplace. He made a comment that when he was hiring he had ” whole binders full of women,” who were qualified for a position, to choose from. The comment immediately made its rounds on the internet with a Facebook page emerging before the debate even ended.
Why couldn’t Romney and the G.O.P escape the narrative that the Democrats created for them?
Romney’s failure to escape the narrative is similar to the 2008 election cycle when McCain failed to transition from his days as a war hero to a hero inside civil society, as Jeffrey Alexander suggests in his book The Performance of Politics (109). Romney’s challenges can be paralleled to this; he and his party attempted to convince the electorate that he was a successful businessman whose persistence early on in small business elevated him to the status that he holds today. Just as McCain failed to transition from war hero to a hero of the civil sphere, Romney failed to use his success as a means of inspiring the electorate, specifically small business owners, that they can do the same.
Both candidates also failed to cure “doubts” about whether they “understand” voters, according to Conservative figure Karl Rove (Alexander, 110). In 2008, many had “concerns about their job, their family’s health, their children’s education…” as Rove suggests (Alexander, 110). These issues were still in the minds of voters and central points of debate in 2012 with constant focus on the economy, Obamacare, women’s rights to birth control and education reform. No different from 2008, the Republican candidate in 2012 failed to win over the majority of Americans with his arguments for each of the same issues.
Although there were specific moments during Romney’s campaign for president that didn’t sit well with many Americans, the similar struggles of Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008 could signal a broader problem regarding the Republican Party. According to Alexander, George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 marked the cementing of a neoconservative base within the Republican Party (105). In 2010, the Republicans added the Tea Party to its list of factions within the party.
The emergence of these two factions that centered on far right conservative social and economic views forced both candidates to move further to the right. Each candidate’s message was muddled because of the sudden shift from moderate conservative to far right-winger without any pragmatism behind the shift. According to Alexander, there is a fine line between “pragmatic shifts” and “deceitful flip-flops” (101). Alexander says that “(McCain’s) flip-flopping is understood to be driven by a desire for glory, for the nomination, not by altruistic concerns for justice.” Many had written Romney off as a similar candidate. Brendan Nyhan suggests in an article for the Columbia Journalism Review that Romney’s image as a flip-flopper was due to the high levels of media attention during the time in which he had to move away from his moderate image: during the 2008 and 2012 presidential primary campaigns.
The division of the Republican Party is not the only reason for their failure to construct a positive narrative for themselves and a negative one on the Democrats. Alexander claims that it’s hard to “make negatives stick” to what he refers to as a “movement candidate.” In 2008, Obama stood for “hope” and “change.” After the Bush era, voters were ready for change. McCain still represented a “continuation of (Bush’s) policies” according to the Wall Street Journal (107). In 2012, Obama promised to continue the road he was on, highlighting all of his successes such as the Affordable Care Act, the recovery of the auto industry and the killing of Osama Bin Laden to name a few. It was important to mention that his “changes” were working, and they would keep the country moving “forward.”
The negative narrative that defined the G.O.P and the positive one that kept the Democrats on a steady path during 2012 are both reasons that can be used to theorize why the election turned out the way it did. Though these are specific reasons out of many, they can be used to analyze the broader implication of party factions (or unity, in the case of the Democrats) that play a larger role in determining an election.
1. Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics. New York: Oxford, 2010. Print.