How Mitt Romney Squandered a Big Advantage in the Messaging War

PHOTO: Jay LaPrete/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, in Westerville, Ohio.

Back in May, I had breakfast with a friend of mine who happens to be a respected Democratic strategist. Usually upbeat, he was crestfallen. The election had him worried. After a bruising primary season, Mitt Romney had emerged as the Republican candidate and that didn't bode well for Obama, he explained.

Romney might not be an enthusiastic campaigner, my friend told me, but he made up for it with a prodigious capacity for fund-raising. Thanks to Romney's talents and the Supreme Court's de facto privatization of American democracy, the difference in money was probably going to be monumental come election season. But my friend's main concern wasn't actually pecuniary.  What truly alarmed him was the election's narrative. In his view, the Republican party had come a long way towards achieving its goal of labeling Barack Obama as a "weak leader". Taking a page from the 1980 presidential election, the GOP had bet on characterizing the sitting commander-in-chief as fundamentally flawed, unfit for office, and a "leader from behind". And Obama hadn't helped his case much: his presidency had been, in many ways, the story of his on-the-job education. Or at least that's what the Republicans wanted the electorate to perceive. My friend lamented that, by mid-May,  his own party still hadn't come up with a coherent answer, a compelling "competing narrative" : "without a story to tell, Obama won't have a chance in November", he explained.

As it turns out, the Democratic party did have a narrative in mind. And not only that: it had a surprising timing in mind for said narrative. In what's probably a first, the Obama campaign chose early summer as the window in which it would try to define its opponent in the mind of the American electorate. In a ruthless and tough negative campaign, the President's team portrayed Romney as the quintessential "vulture capitalist", the very incarnation of the 1% that had driven the Occupy movement during late 2011 and early 2012. It was an audacious move. The idea could have backfired: the audience's attention could have been elsewhere (it was early summer, after all), or the President could have been labeled as a "negative politician". None of that happened. The campaign managed to preempt the Republican narrative. It is a safe bet to say that, if asked, an average voter would probably say that the 2012 elections has been about Mitt Romney and his money rather than about Obama's weakness as a leader.

Still, the Obama campaign's audacious strategy would not have worked as it has were it not for the unexpected blessing of the Romney 47% video. For the President, it must have been sort of a miracle, the kind of thing that very rarely happens during a presidential election, with its tightly scripted messaging.  In its almost fictional forcefulness, the Romney video sometimes seems like something out of a Hollywood version of a presidential election, a sort of dues-ex machina that just doesn't happen in real life: one of the contenders being caught in a perfectly delivered speech that not only justifies but strengthens his opponent's narrative. Barack Obama is indeed a lucky man.

This is how we arrive at the presidential debates. Mitt Romney will have one last chance to overturn the devastating portrayal that the Obama campaign has so successfully instilled in people's minds—with Romney's own help. My friend the Democratic strategist was right in fearing the potency of the "weak leader" narrative. The question now is whether the Republican candidate still has time – and the voters' attention – to sell it.