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Telling The Story – Part II – Why Did Mitt Romney Lose in ’08?

Posted by: John Schroeder at 09:23 pm, September 7th 2009     —    14 Comments »

Way back last October we started a series we called “Telling The Story.” We are finally getting around to the second installment.  The idea here is to collect a narrative on ’08.  Before we get into all the details and long grass, it is probably best to establish a “meta-narrative.”  From our perspective as Romneyites in ’08, the essential question is “Why did Mitt Romney lose?”  Was it The Question?

Let’s recount the key events that lead to Romney’s withdrawal:

It is fair to say that the Romney campaign could have survived one, two, maybe even three of these events, but the combination and order proved deadly.   There were also some strategic miscalculations in the Romney campaign that served as a multiplier of the effects of these events.  Was there a central theme?  Certainly not to all of them, but Mike Huckabee is a dominant presence in that list, both initiating and capping this series of events.  And if we operate on the premise stated above that the Romney campaign could have survived some, but not all of the events, then it is fair to say that it was Mike Huckabee’s actions, which are strongly rooted in The Question, that proved fatal.

Lowell: I agree.  Huck’s effect was to be the spoiler.  In the end, the proof of his self-interest lay in his tag-teaming with McCain to help beat Romney, even after it was clear Huck had no chance to win the nomination.  The most likely explanation is that Huck wanted McCain to reward him with the veep nomination.  If that wasn’t it, the only possible explanation is that Huck simply wanted to stop Romney.  I am hard-pressed to think of an altruistic reason.

IOWA

Iowa is a simple story to tell.  That state has always hinged on religious issues.  It needs to be remembered that explicit religious figures have often carried it.  Pat Robertson being the most recent example.  Mike Huckabee polled well there from the beginning for precisely that reason, and he played on it.  In an interview with the New York Times, just a few weeks before the caucuses, he quipped, “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers?”  To this day he insists that it was an innocent question, asked of the reporter when he was questioned about Romney’s faith and the reporter appeared to know more about it than he did.  There was also an apology to Romney some time later – more on that in a minute.

In the world of elections, weeks are a very long time, that is unless of course, the Christmas/New Year’s holidays are the weeks between interview and caucus,  in which case it is as if the interview occurred the day before the votes.

The effect is undeniable.  Romney campaign internal data shows that Romney hit his targets quite well in Iowa.  Romney won the traditional Republican base there.  The Huckabee voters were new votes in the mix – people that just don’t normally show up at the caucuses.   Who were these people?

The fact that there was and still is a portion of traditionally Christian people that feel a Mormon is unsuitable for high office based on his/her faith is undeniable.  Just check the archives of this blog if you need evidence.  But people also know that such discrimination is unacceptable in our nation.  Part of the reason the press coverage was so intense on the issue was that the press wanted to show that the average American Republican was still the ignorant bigoted redneck stereotype that fueled the news during the Civil Rights Movement of the ’60′s.  Well, it did not take the Klan people long in the ’60′s to figure out that standing in front of the news cameras was counter productive, and such people this time around knew better from the beginning.  They needed political cover – someone or something to provide a shadow in which they could operate.

Mike Huckabee, with his “innocent question,” provided precisely that cover.  Now people had something positive to talk about – they could be “for Huckabee” not “against Romney.”  But they knew, because Huckabee had sent them the signal, that at base they had to stop the Mormon.  Countless elections in the ’70′s in the deep South used precisely the same tactics.   Blacks began to seek office in droves after the Civil Rights Movement, but the bigotry remained.  Voting against someone because they were a “negra” was now unacceptable.  But everybody knew that voting for Billy Joe, even if he was an ignorant redneck, was a way to keep the blacks out of office, and under control.  After all, they’d just had a beer with Billy Joe in the Legion hall a few weeks ago, and well, you remember what he said.

A somewhat more positive example would be Ronald Reagan’s approach to pro-lifers in 1980.  Reagan, as governor of California, had signed perhaps the most liberal abortion bill ever passed.   He knew that on a national stage to be staunchly pro-life stance would cost him many needed votes.  But he also knew that pro-lifers were a political force to be captured and used.  So, he agreed to let them operate under his wing while being far more moderate on such matters in his campaign.

Which brings us back to Huckabee’s apologies and denials.  There are two important factors to recall about them.  For one, the story always runs page one and the retraction always runs buried.   Huck’s “innocent question” was a page one story in the NYTimes.  Huck’s apology was featured in the political press, but not so much the popular press.  Secondly, Huck apologized, but never admitted guilt.  That’s important.  By not admitting guilt, he left room for the anti-Mormon forces out there to continue to maneuver on his behalf.  Had he admitted guilt he would have had to repudiate such people.

Finally, there was the fact that Huckabee never had a chance of winning the nomination.  He simply did not have enough money or organization.  Like it or not, one cannot win without those things.   In the accelerated primary schedule we saw in 2008, there simply was not enough time after Iowa to capitalize on a win and build an organization unless you already had a skeleton in place.  Huckabee had no such thing – by the time he could organize on a scale sufficient to have a chance, it was over.  Any astute political observer knew this going in. Now, there a lot of voters out there that are not astute political observers, but there were a lot of such observers pointing out the facts.  When people back people like Huckabee, it is because they care about something other than that candidate actually winning – they want to send a message, or bring an issue to the forefront.  And in this case, at least some of them wanted to “stop the Mormon.”

Sadly, there were enough people so motivated to change the outcome in Iowa.  They may never caucus again, but they did in 2008.  When added to the other people that everybody knew were going to vote for Huckabee, the expected religious vote always present in Iowa, they got done what they wanted to get done.

Iowa is a story of when Arkansas slick met religious bigotry.   It was sad and it was an enormous blow to the Romney campaign.  Much of the Romney strategy was built on momentum coming out of Iowa.  We’ll discuss that more when we get to Florida.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

Huckabee’s victory in Iowa reshuffled the deck, but it was New Hampshire, the next week, where the new game first came into serious view.  The major players in the primary, with the exception of Romney, had taken a pass on Iowa.  In fact, Rudy Giuliani took a pass on all the primaries prior to Florida, more on that when we get to Florida, but New Hampshire was slated to be the first vote where real candidates met head to head. Five factors were at play in New Hampshire that produced a surprising result.

Firstly, the McCain team did an outstanding job.  Just a few months before voting was to begin, Team McCain appeared to fall apart.  Virtually every major player in the McCain camp either left or was shown the door.  They appeared to be in complete disarray.  Fund-raising came to a virtual standstill and the campaign coffers appeared nearly dry.  Against this backdrop, the new team, obviously rapidly assembled and with limited resources, just got the job done.  Whatever else was at play in New Hampshire, they did something almost no one thought could be done.  (Addenduma couple of weeks after publication – please be sure and see the comments to this post for some great insight into how McCain was able to pull this off.)

Secondly, New Hampshire’s independent nature and McCain’s ‘maverick’ image mesh perfectly.  Part of the reason the McCain team was reshuffled was because they were trying to cast him as a more mainstream Republican.  John McCain was, and is, “a maverick.”  On the national stage, I am not at all sure that is a good thing, but in New Hampshire, that is the perfect thing.  Open primaries were practically invented in New Hampshire where no one wants to be ‘beholden’ to a party.  McCain had won there against W. eight years earlier for pretty much the same reason.  Bush was viewed as the anointed Republican, and New Hampshireites were having none of this anointing stuff.  New Hampshire may be the only place in the nation where one can run against party in a primary and have a hope of prevailing.  John McCain fit the bill perfectly.

Thirdly, Romney took New Hampshire too much for granted.  Relying on momentum from Iowa, which did not materialize, and “neighbor” status as the former governor of Massachusetts, Romney did not organize or campaign nearly as hard as he should have in New Hampshire.  Of course, Giuliani was not participating and he was viewed as Romney’s chief rival.  When combined with the fact that the reshuffle in McCain’s camp made everyone think it was dead in the water, it made some sense for Romney to deploy resources elsewhere.  Obviously not enough sense though.

Lowell: Of course, after Iowa the news media and the punditry began repeating this meme:  After his Iowa loss, which was a blow to his overall strategy, New Hampshire was now a must-win for Romney.  After all, it was his neighboring state, and a loss there would mean real trouble for him, yada yada yada.  This was inevitable, and was a real case of the stars not aligning very well for Mitt.

Fourthly, the open primary system hurt – badly“Crossover” voting is real, and in many cases it is strategic. Democrats had two strong candidates in their primary, either one represented a reasonable general election candidate.  Not so the Republican side.  For the first time in decades the Republicans were without a presumptive nominee.  This pulled a lot of also-rans out of the woodwork.  Ron Paul and Duncan Hunter immediately come to mind.  Mike Huckabee would likely have been in that same category had it not been for the religion factor in Iowa.  Those are all the kinds of people who usually show up in Iowa, gain some media cred, then disappear to other things, capitalizing on the exposure. But when faced with the opportunity to throw the hoped-for Republican narrative into disarray, without opening the door to something equally disturbing in their own camp, I am sure many Democrats found the temptation irresistible.

Finally, “religious overload” could well have been a factor.  Reviewing the months leading up to Iowa in preparation for writing this piece was an eye-opener, even though I ‘lived” it.  It had all the hallmarks of a religious/political war.  Day after day, headline after headline, Huckabee ad after Huckabee ad, religion flat out dominated the narrative in Iowa.  It is reasonable to believe that moderates and independents, as New Hampshireites like to think themselves to be, would simply go for the least religiously identified candidate in a sort of backlash at too much religious influence in politics.  What is really sad about this is that Romney never sought to be identified as a particularly religious candidate.  He became such by virtue of a relentless press and the overtly religious Mike Huckabee.

We’ll never know for sure why the press decided his faith was the story line on Romney, but they did early and they worried it to death.   In the end, that may be the bottom line on the effect of The Question and the elections.  The press just never let it go.  They made it an issue.  Where did they get the idea that such was THE story?  Robert Novak was the first to bring it to light, and his claim was to have picked it up from “Evangelical sources.”  One wonders about Huckabee sources planting the rumors (or did the sources just tilt Huckabee up?) but we’ll never know.

FLORIDA

Michigan, South Carolina, and Nevada all came between New Hampshire and Florida.  Michigan and Nevada were big wins for Romney, and South Carolina saw the beginning and end of Fred Thompson, who turned out to be far less than expected, but these contests had little effect on the main narrative of the primaries.  All the momentum that Romney was supposed to have built by this point in time was aimed squarely at Florida and Rudy Giuliani.

The Romney momentum strategy was in part based on the Giuliani “overwhelm them in Florida strategy.”  As we have previously noted, Romney and Giuliani were considered the main players in the race.   McCain had been presumed dead, but after New Hampshire and good votes counts in the interim, such was obviously not the case.  Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee had garnered a lot of press, and in Huckabee’s case a few votes, but their lack of organization indicated that they were not serious players.  Giuliani was the man to beat.  His organization was formidable and his moderation stood in stark contrast to the out-of-favor Bush.  He had set up camp in Florida and intended to win so big there that the following week’s Super Tuesday could not change the tide.  Florida, with its very large former New York retired population seemed like a great place to make such a stand.  Romney intended to hit him having accumulated more momentum than Giuliani could generate in that state.

Well, as we have noted, Romney had not accumulated the hoped for momentum.  Michigan and Nevada helped, but without Iowa and/or New Hampshire they just did not appear to be that big a deal.  Fortunately, Giuliani had not built any momentum either.  He was polling a very distant third in Florida, behind McCain and Romney.  Maybe Romney did not need that momentum after all?  He was not running into the juggernaut he expected.   There was reason to hope and room to maneuver.  That was until Florida governor Charlie Crist stepped in.  But before we discuss that, we should take a paragraph to ask why Giuliani failed in Florida.

Most people understood there was dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, even in the base, but few realized that what was desired by the public was not adjustment, but wholesale change.  Romney represented minor adjustments in roughly the same ideological space.  Giuliani moved the party more towards the center, a larger adjustment, but hardly revolutionary.  Both were considered party insiders.  McCain stood as the maverick – someone that wasn’t just going to make adjustments, but was goIng to play a whole new game.  (This same thing is probably what won the general for Obama, but that is not the story we are telling here.)  To ideologues, McCain appeared to be a maverick for maverick’s sake, without an ideological center, but most people did not care, they just knew they did not want business as usual.  Huckabee also profited from this sentiment.  In light of that, Romney’s success in the primaries is extraordinary – he did far, far better than any of the other perceived “mainstream” candidates.  This should serve him very well if he decides to run again – as the Obama administration is rapidly reminding the nation there is no such thing as genuine “new game playing,” only posturing.

But back to Charlie Crist.  In a tight race, formal party leadership rarely endorses during a primary campaign – as exemplified by this video of then Chairman of the Mississippi Democrat party Wayne Dowdy.   It is their job to let the voters sort out who will be best.  Office-holding party leadership is a slightly different story. They are major public figures and their endorsements matter in their regions.  Typically, however, they endorse early (think Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman both of whom endorsed McCain long before voting began) or they remain neutral and back the winner after it is over.  Careful political calculation in involved.  Last minute endorsements – in Florida Crist came out for McCain the day before voting – is a bit of an effort at “king-making” and it runs a serious risk of backfire. If the voting goes other then their endorsement they look seriously powerless.  Such was not the case in Florida.  Polling between McCain and Romney was fairly tight until Crist stepped in – then McCain broke out – and had the momentum going into Super Tuesday.

It was still a  gamble on Crist’s part.  But, as it was, Crist’s gamble paid off, at least until the results of the general election were in.  Neutrality would certainly have been the safest bet on Crist’s part.  Going into Florida it was a tight race; whoever prevailed there was going to be presumptive for Super Tuesday.  There was a great deal at stake.

Romney campaign insiders have told this blog that Crist’s endorsement of McCain came as a complete surprise.  One is forced to wonder what McCain promised Crist as quid pro quo.  It must have been enticing.

LowellCrist had suggested that he would not endorse anyone in the Florida primary.  Four days before the election, here’s what he told National Journal in an interview:

Q: Now, John McCain endorsed you in your primary race in Florida. Why have you not endorsed him?

Crist: Well, I’m very appreciative of the fact that he was helpful to me early on, but frankly all of these candidates helped me during my campaign for governor, so I feel a sense of gratitude to each and every one of them. They are all friends of mine, and they are all running great campaigns here in the Sunshine State, and they’ve been here awhile, so I’m grateful they are spending a lot of good money in Florida. It’s good for our economy.

Q: Might you endorse?

Crist: I haven’t ruled it out, but as we get closer, it becomes slimmer, so time will tell.

Q: What’s going to make your mind up?

Crist: What would make my mind up? Probably be just a gut feel, to be honest. I try to lead with my heart — as I say, all of them are friends, and I think the world of each and every one of these candidates, and they are working incredibly hard, and time will tell.

Crist apparently had a “gut feel” for McCain just in time for the election.

This was a hinge point.  No single factor makes or breaks an election and the blame for the results of the ’08 primaries cannot be laid solely at Charlie Crist’s feet.  But his last minute endorsement of John McCain was a pivotal factor, made all the more important by Huckabee’s Iowa shenanigans.   Had Romney the momentum he sought going into Florida, it is likely that Crist would have found the risks of endorsement too great.  Even had he endorsed McCain it would have been far less meaningful.

But now the stage was set for Super Tuesday.  Thompson and Giuliani were gone, McCain was the clear leader. Romney was still in the hunt, but behind.  Huckabee was being Huckabee – playing a game that had no chance of winning, but had one shot of significant influence left before being reduced entirely to mere media posturing.

SUPER TUESDAY

Barring a dead heat, as was the case for the Democrats in ’08, so-called “Super Tuesday” is generally when the primaries are decided.   So many delegates in so many key states are at stake that while mathematical possibilities may exist thereafter, political realities are pretty well set in stone.  That said, it is a long day, with primaries, caucuses and conventions from coast-to-coast. Returns from the east come in long before voting is concluded in the west, and since it is not a national election, news outlets are more than willing to report the the early results, which can then have major affects on later voting.

Romney came into Super Tuesday needing to “break the mold.”  He had to win at least one that was not solidly in his corner already to stop McCain.  The most likely place for that victory was California, where polling showed it very close.  So much so that on the night before, Romney jetted to Long Beach for a thundering rally before jetting back to West Virginia where the first returns of the day were expected.   But California would be the last returns for the day, leaving lots of room for the earlier results to have an effect.

West Virginia came in first because it was not an election, it was a state party convention. And like all conventions, deals could be brokered – that is precisely what happened.  By this time it was the general perception was that it was (Romney v Huckabee) v McCain.  Of course, such was not actually the case.  Romney was far ahead of Huckabee in delegate count, but that did not seem to matter.  The echoes of the religious wars of Iowa held sway in the public’s and press’ mind. If that appearance could be maintained, it would distract Romney from battling his real foe – McCain.  Further, if Huckabee could be made to look like he was winning, Romney would be significantly weakened.

Military man that McCain is, he did not miss this strategic opening.  To win the nomination required over 50% of the vote.  In the first round it was Romney 41% and Huckabee 33%.  But things changed radically in the second round as the third place finisher (McCain) stepped up:

But before Huckabee’s surprising turnaround in the second round, McCain delegates told FOX News they had been instructed by the campaign to throw their support to Huckabee.

McCain delegate John Vuolo said former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer approached him and other McCain supporters at the convention and told them he had spoken to McCain, and that the best thing to do was to support Huckabee in the hope that Huckabee could beat Romney in this winner-take-all state.

Robbed of the appearance of momentum, maybe even losing one he was supposed to win, Super Tuesday went according to the polls and Romney knew that he could not win and so suspended his campaign a few days later in  masterpiece of a speech at CPAC.

In terms of delegate count, WV is not all that important but it says boatloads about the campaign and specifically about The Question as it applies to the primaries ’08.  While the religious talk died significantly after Iowa, it cast the die for the rest of the race.  Mike Huckabee set Mitt Romney, a presumptive favorite for the years proceeding, squarely in his sights, and went for it.  Both men were competing for the social conservative vote, but outside the realm of social conservatives, they could not have been more different.  For Huckabee there was nothing, really, but the social conservative issues, while Romney tried to woo the crowd, but knew that fiscal policy (and has he been proven almost prophetically correct about that or what?!) and foreign policy were the front burner of the executive branch in the years to come.

The press had been for two years prior to the elections casting Romney as “the Mormon,” and has we have said, Huckabee was more than willing to play on that.  He did so in Iowa, even before the underhanded and slimy “Don’t they believe . . .” remark, simply by positioning himself as “the Christian” – playing on the never ending discussion in the theological world of “Are Mormons Christian?” and  in the political world “Will Evangelicals vote for a Mormon?”  This set the stage for this strategy in West Virgina to work.  The fact that it did – and that it was executed – says a great deal about Mike Huckabee.

Simply put, John McCain would have never thrown his WV convention votes to Huckabee, if Huckabee had anything resembling a chance of actually winning the nomination.  Here endeth all claims on the part of Huckabee that he was a legitimate candidate, legitimately seeking the nomination.  Huckabee continued to “campaign” for weeks after this, not withdrawing until his failure to achieve the nomination became an actual mathematical impossibility.  He continued to insist that he was a legitimate possibility to win, even at one point claiming the possibility of miracles.  Motivations in a situation like this can never be clearly understood, but Huckabee’s actions on and after Super Tuesday clearly indicate that his motivations were other than obtaining the Republican nomination for President.

Motivations and Memes

So, the political facts of primary ’08 are that the press established a background of Evangelicals v. Mormon.  Mike Huckabee established himself as “The Evangelical.”  Mitt Romney did not seek a religious identity in the campaign, but the press and Mike Huckabee made sure everybody knew he was “the Mormon.”  Huckabee played this angle overtly, remorselessly and untiringly in Iowa.  This cast the campaign as Huckabee v. Romney and the winner of that was taking on everyone else.

John McCain put together a great effort in New Hampshire, which when coupled with religious fatigue, put McCain out front.  Between NH and Florida, Romney won a couple, but he could not aim that momentum at McCain, as Huckabee had taken all the air out of the room when it came to who Romney had to compete with rhetorically, and Giuliani just failed to materialize.  (If you need more evidence of this fact consider that Romney had to deliver his “Faith in America” speech, masterpiece that it was, in December – way earlier than he wanted, or than could be truly effective – and he had to because Huckabee forced it with his Iowa shenanigans.)  When Charlie Crist surprised the world with his endorsement of John McCain, the day in Florida was done.

Hope remained for Romney on Super Tuesday, but it required something extraordinary to be realized.  When McCain, in one deft strategic move, robbed Romney of that something extraordinary and told Mike Huckabee he was a loser,  that hope faded.

Two questions remain.  Why did Mike Huckabee play the game the way he did?  He was clearly after something besides the nomination.  And, why was he able to succeed at eliminating Romney so effectively?

Because Mike Huckabee is not talking about this, the answer to the first question can only be speculative.  He could have just been playing for recognition that he could then leverage into something else, like the TV show he now has.  But then, he had most of that leverage after Iowa.  He did not need to keep going.  It is possible that Huckabee was simply trying to “stop the Mormon” for reasons of pure political bigotry – that is precisely what his “campaign strategy” seemed aimed at doing. But he has worked too hard to change that impression, albeit after the fact, to be able to make a strong case for such.

It is more likely that Huckabee suffered from the grandiose delusions that affected all Evangelicals this round – that the nomination was “theirs” somehow by right of their position in the party.  Many of the people that felt, and frankly feel, that way were anti-Mormon bigots and they were not the least bit afraid to whisper in Huckabee’s ear whenever it suited them.  The grandiosity that many Evangelicals operated under in the ’08 cycle could have large implications for the Republican party going forward, but that is a subject for another post in this series.  There is also a need to figure out who many of these actors were and name them – also the subject for another post.

Lowell: Our discussion of those actors will include a discussion of the role of Evangelical opinion leaders like James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  The evidence seems to be that Dobson liked Romney, but was (a) so politically inept and (b) so afraid of his organization’s membership, that he ended up hurting Romney much more than helping him.   There is much to say about the likes of Dobson and the Rev. Al Mohler in this regard.

But there is no point in speculating endlessly, the second question matters a lot.  There was a single “meme” that tied together several of the ideological attacks on Romney that created a cognitive field on which these efforts could flourish.  In the political realm, the “flip-flop” charge stuck.  It was based on several apparent changes of position on Romney’s part.  Of course, no such thing happened, there are constraints on the power of an executive office and its holder, at least if they are interested in preserving democracy, must live within those restraints, even against his or her better judgment. But that fact did not stop the charge from echoing.

In the religious realm, the idea was “Mormons lie.”  It is based, loosely on the apparent changes in Mormon doctrine over the last couple of centuries – the entire history of the Mormon church I should add.  Not being a Mormon myself, I cannot do a reasonable apology of the shifts, but I can note that my own orthodox Christian faith is full of them, just on a longer time scale.  It is not a charge that can be leveled at another without serious risk of it coming back to haunt.

These ideas came together because some made the connection that if Mormons are willing “to play fast and loose with doctrine,” they would be more than willing to change political positions like a chameleon changes colors.   Of course, this connection is fallacious because the underlying facts are misrepresented and misunderstood, but that did not matter.  This formed an ideological base on which Huckabee and McCain could operate.  It created a situation where they had a presumption of trust while Romney had to earn it double.

MOVING FORWARD

As we move forward in the “Telling The Story” series, we will need to look at the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and examine in more detail the rhetorical wars that lead up to the campaigns and elections themselves.  We will also need to look at the implications of what happened for the future of both the Republican Party and Mitt Romney.

Through these events, Evangelicals have very much carved themselves out as a group apart.  That limits their political effectiveness, but also has huge ramifications for both parties.    It’s going to be an interesting few years.

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