Some observers think that President Obama’s awful record should make it easy for any of the GOP candidates to beat him. That’s a dangerous delusion. No incumbent should ever be underestimated, especially one the media loves. Also, each of the Republican candidates has proven highly adept at techniques for losing the 2012 election. Here are a few of their favorites.
1. Engaging in academic discussions on the campaign trail: Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are especially prone to doing this. Phrases like “hypothetically speaking” should be absolutely shunned by a presidential candidate. The voters are not eager to participate in a dorm-room bull session about the theoretical limits of American government, nor do they wish to be used in a laboratory experiment. Likewise, they’ll respect a command of history, but be turned off by long lectures about prior centuries. Dwelling at length upon the past is a good way to seem out of touch.
2. Forgetting about your own platform: The big thing Herman Cain did really well was talking up his own platform (although sometimes he was much better at delivering enthusiasm than details.) He brought everything back to the 999 Plan, and conveyed the sense he passionately believed in it. In fact, he’s still working on promoting it, even after suspending his campaign.
On the other hand, Rick Perry and even idea factory Newt Gingrich often neglect to bring up their own core proposals, some of which are quite dramatic. Both of them favor a flat tax, for example. That’s a huge change to our system. The 999 Plan is essentially a flat tax fused to a consumption tax, and Cain always knew it would rattle a lot of cages. Perry and Gingrich act like their flat tax plans are minor curiosities that can be looked up on their Web sites, should voters feel suitably motivated.
Worse, Perry has actually forgotten about important details of his own plan. Appearing in Iowa with Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal on Tuesday, he forgot that his plan included a standard deduction. Jindal had to remind him about it. Coupled with the infamous moment in which Perry couldn’t remember the third department he wanted to eliminate during a debate, it’s an unsettling tendency.
Treating a major policy change with this kind of neglect turns voters off. It makes them think the candidate hasn’t thought his plan all the way through, isn’t serious about implementing it, or hasn’t considered all of its ramifications. The candidate ends up taking the heat for proposing a bold idea, without reaping any of the rewards.
3. Picking fights with the Republican base. Some pundits wonder why Jon Huntsman has never managed more than an asterisk in the polls. Simple: he launched his campaign by aggressively insulting the conservative base, and declaring himself the moderate alternative to those Tea Party extremists. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Huntsman’s first impression was awful. His relatively conservative campaign has never been able to overcome this.
In a similar vein, one of the reasons Mitt Romney has such a persistent ceiling on his appeal is that he’s either alienated various elements of the conservative movement in the past, or he’s patronizing them now. Ron Paul’s casual assertions that those who disagree with his foreign policy views are bloodthirsty warmongers alienates both Republican and general election voters. He actually said of Michele Bachmann, on national television, “She hates Muslims. Yeah, she wants to go get ‘em.”
There’s always a tendency for candidates to “tack to the middle” during the general election, at the expense of their base. Hopefully none of the Republican candidates are under any illusions about the willingness of significant portions of their base to endure outright insults and betrayals. No matter how much they want Obama out of office, some of them can be persuaded to stay home on Election Night, arms folded in disgust.
4. Opposing Obama’s policies without understanding why they’re wrong: This is one of Mitt Romney’s big problems, courtesy of RomneyCare. Republican voters have spent years worrying that he would be an unreliable or ineffective opponent of ObamaCare… and in all those years, he still hasn’t found a way to reassure them. This is not merely peevish behavior on their part. They know moderate and independent voters need to hear an argument against ObamaCare that is not just convincing, but devastating. After all, they will be frequently reminded that repealing it will be a huge political and bureaucratic struggle.
Newt Gingrich will also face challenges in this area, because as sharp as he has been in debates, a little bit of his political soul will always be glued to that couch, next to Nancy Pelosi.
5. Getting carried away: Michele Bachmann’s consistent mistake has been going too far with initially valid criticisms, and leaving herself open to chiding that she “doesn’t have her facts straight,” as Newt Gingrich put it during the last Republican debate. Imagine what that will be like when it’s not a grumpy Gingrich, but a school of “fact-checking” media piranha, ready to pounce on her.
A running theme of the Obama 2012 campaign will be that criticism of the President is morally illegitimate – in other words, the Republican candidate hates him because he’s black, or because they’re servants of the Evil Rich, et cetera. Sloppy criticism will play right into that storyline.
6. Losing control of the narrative: The great danger of media bias is not so much outright obfuscation or propaganda, although we’ll probably have some of that, too. The real danger is narrative control. To put it simply, the media decides on a plot line for the election, and it guides their coverage. This plot line will not be friendly to the GOP nominee.
The candidate should not underestimate his or her power to change the narrative. In 2008, John McCain was particularly horrible at this. He couldn’t put together a winning storyline of “How President McCain Won the White House.” He couldn’t even cobble together a good reason for voters to vote against his opponent, apparently terrified that strong criticism of Obama would blow up in his face.
Excessive timidity against Obama will result in a loss of narrative control, as media-influenced moderate voters begin wondering why the mousy GOP candidate wasted everyone’s time and money with an election. At some point, criticism of policy inevitably becomes “personal” criticism of the incumbent – who must, by definition, have been either malicious or foolish to insist on such disastrous policy for years.
A big part of narrative control is understanding how to engage the media, draw them along a desired path, and give them something positive they can’t help talking about. Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman seem to have a lot of trouble grabbing the spotlight and doing this. It’s hard to suddenly become exciting.
7. Freezing up: By this I don’t just mean brain freezes on the debate stage, although those are plenty bad enough. Unexpected events will occur during the campaign. Some of these candidates have long histories, elements of which will be popping up at carefully timed moments. The campaigns must be ready to adapt. Herman Cain’s campaign gave us a couple of sharp lessons in how not to do it. Confusion and disarray among campaign operatives can be disastrous. Responses must be swift and coordinated.
As for the debate stage itself, there’s no doubt that mumbling and verbal lockups are bad news. Obama is a fairly smooth speaker, particularly in formal settings. He can say some remarkably weird things, but the way he says them conveys poise. He’s good at deploying stock phrases like “As I have always said” and “Let me be clear” when he needs to buy a little time. Both style and substance will be part of this campaign, and the Republican’s style will inevitably be judged more harshly.
President Obama is very beatable, but losing is easy too. Far too many post-mortems for failed campaigns begin with the observation that the candidate never really understood the forces aligned against him. The result of the 2012 campaign needs to be something better than a best-selling 2013 book by a defeated candidate, reviewing all the ways he or she was treated unfairly. Write that book in your heads right now, GOP contenders… and then run a campaign that tears it to shreds.