Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Romney's Skills and the General Election

Over at PostPartisan, I'm arguing today that Romney is underrated, and actually has important political skills. I don't think it's just luck that he's emerged as the almost-certain nominee.

Projecting that's what I expect. Romney will be under a lot of pressure, just as John McCain and George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole were, to find a suitably conservative running mate to excite the party. He'll handle it reasonably well, more like Dole than like the other two. He'll give a solid convention speech that will beat expectations...that's an easy one, all the mediocre orators and nominees who have struggled during nomination season beat expectations in their convention speeches. He'll perform adequately in the presidential way to predict whether he'll "win" them or not, but he won't embarrass himself or his party. His campaign operation will be reasonably scandal-free, at least unless he's really heading for a blowout loss (for reasons other than his electioneering skills). His move to the center will be somewhat awkward, but that's more a function of the situation (and the current GOP) than the candidate.

In short, he'll be a perfectly adequate candidate. If he loses -- and Obama is probably a slight favorite now, but if the economy really is improving then Obama becomes a solid favorite -- he'll be seen as dull and uninspiring, and every campaign gaffe will be magnified in retrospect. Republicans will vilify him as not sufficiently conservative to have excited the party. But in reality, every candidate commits gaffes, every candidate has weaknesses to attack and exploit, and every candidate is insufficiently conservative for the current GOP.

Of course, if he wins, people will discover no end of virtues in him, and a lot of those will be overblown, too. He's not a great politician. But he's a good one, and he'll almost certainly be an adequate general election candidate. Which is, really, the best a party can hope for most of the time.


  1. Agree mostly, but two disputes:

    1) You declare Romney "perfectly adequate" after only addressing his positive attributes (most of which are only "positive" when compared to expectations). You wave away his negative attributes by positing that every GOP candidate also has those negatives. But I don't think that's really true.

    In particular, none of the other GOP candidates (or would-be candidates) carry the same Wall Street baggage that Mitt does. During a year when gross inequality and financial malfeasance are at the forefront of voters' minds, this negative has the potential to be a debilitating weakness in the general election. Which would make Mitt something less than "perfectly adequate" from the GOP's perspective.

    2) At WaPo, you say it wasn't luck that got Romney to this point. I beg to differ. Romney got extremely lucky this cycle: Pawlenty had to bow out early, Perry turned out to be a dunce, Santorum didn't know when to tone down the religious-right rhetoric, and many popular, well-known pols decided against formally running (IMO, Daniels/Jeb/Thune/Christie all would have been favored vs. Mitt if they jumped in, and not all of them would have flamed out spectacularly like Perry).

    Of course Mitt has some political skill. He did win a statewide election as a Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts, after all. But, as you acknowledge, he is not a great politician; on his best days, he is merely adequate.

    And it seems to me that "luck" is precisely what has catapulted this merely adequate candidate to the precipice of a nomination.

    1. Let me be clear: I find Romney's prowess at fund-raising and staying on the good side of party bigwigs to be impressive, and I agree that it reflects political skill.

      But Mitt would not seem nearly as skillful in these endeavors if he had a slightly-better-than-adequate opponent running against him!

    2. Yeah, like Sarah Palin. The biggest of his lucky breaks was that she didn't run, since she would have had a much better chance than any of the others (besides Perry, if he hadn't flamed out) to unify the base / conservative / Tea Party vote against him.

    3. Really, Sarah Palin? That's who you're going to go to?

    4. If the other wingnut choices are Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum, Cain, and Perry? If I'm a Tea Partier, you betcha.

  2. Mitt's gaffes (the NASCAR line, the "trees", the stadium speech to name my three favorites from the last week) preclude his nomination, which obviously comes down mostly to the economy.

    That said, I find myself largely forced to agree with Andrew here and disagree with you, Jonathan. There seem to be aspects of Mitt that make him a uniquely bad campaigner. Just stating that he won't be rocked by major scandals and won't embarrass his party at the debates (both of which I agree with) doesn't demonstrate that Mitt is even a good campaigner.

  3. This isn't politically scientific, but as I was watching Ann Romney introduce the Mittster last night, it really struck me how uniquely odd the entire Romney package is. Ann's a delightful woman, and I really don't have an issue with her. However, on the stump, she betrays a certain queer enthusiasm you might expect from a small-town junior leaguer running her first local bake sale, not at all what you'd expect from the long-time wife of a long-time mover and shaker like Mitt Romney.

    But then, Mitt Romney doesn't do Mitt Romney very well. Andrew's gaffe comment is well taken; again, there are gaffes that are clearly accidental cause you're tired (Obama and the 57 states) and there are gaffes where you clearly can't keep track of how you are perceived in public (Romney's Nascar line). I submit that Romney's gaffes are - peculiarly - way more the latter than the former, and actually its hard to think of another public figure who so frequently says stupid things that seem specifically oblivious to his negative equity.

    Beyond that, of course Team Romney has to know that the noiseosphere would defend his Bain Capital days as standard fare private equity; if the hoi polloi can't tell the difference between Bain Capital and KKR (for example), Romney could have been very confident that those folks would defend Bain Capital, (mis) perceiving it as no different than KKR, et al.

    But...Romney knows the difference! Thinking he was going to base a candidacy on "Mr. Economy/Mr. Job Creator", given what he should know about his narrative...even if the slobbering commentariat is generally ignorant, Romney should have been aware...

    ...and yet, peculiarly, he seems so ignorant.

    Romney's sort of the anti-Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump came across as really moronic, but surprisingly turned out really wise, while Romney frames himself as really wise, but turns out to come across as really moronic.

    How that intersects with a general election is an interesting question.

  4. I would be interested to hear a list of candidates who were inadequate, by your lights, since 1972.

  5. Excellent post, Dr. Bernstein. Romney is in many ways an exceptional candidate; he graduated at the top of his class at BYU, he was a Baker's Scholar (limited to the top 5% of the class) at Harvard Business School while simultaneously obtaining a JD from Harvard Law School, he was a true innovator in private equity at Bain Capital, and he was an effective, moderately conservative governor of Massachusetts. In one sense we are blessed by a choice between Obama, who was editor of the Harvard Law Review, and Romney; both have first rate intellects, well above the norm for Presidential candidates. Compare that to Bush versus Gore in 2000, both of whom were mediocre students who got into Ivy League schools because of their distinguished fathers. It is certainly to the Republican Party's credit that they are choosing someone of Romney's caliber after the underwhelming McCain-Palin ticket of 2008, where both nominees were unable to articulate Republican economic principles in the debates.

    1. This isn't about intellect, though; it's about who can best represent the party on the national stage.

      Think of GWB. Famously anti-intellectual and a notorious dimwit. And yet, an extremely competent campaigner and fundraiser. Moreover, despite his cerebral shortcomings, he was adept at consolidating support from his base and appealing to moderates - without alienating either.

      Mitt Romney, J.D., M.B.A., Harvard alum, business tycoon - he can't seem to do any of that.

    2. George W. Bush - Yale B.A., Harvard M.B.A., business tycoon...

  6. "His move to the center will be somewhat awkward, but that's more a function of the situation (and the current GOP) than the candidate.

    In short, he'll be a perfectly adequate candidate."

    What if the pathologies of his party and the awkwardness of the situation demand that that party nominate not merely an adequate candidate, but one with actually above-average skills for a general election?

  7. Mitt's just not very charismatic, and the charismatic candidate tends to win. Of course if the economy continues to limp along, that changes things totally.

    1. Of course, winning tends to make one seem more charismatic. Think, for example, of the charismatic George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, etc. (I could go on---Calvin Coolidge anyone?)

    2. We've been through this before, and I get the sarcasm. I strongly disagree with JB's absurdly reductive theory that a winner automatically "acquires charisma," as if the term is nothing more than an empty label the press assigns to winning candidates. But I also don't think it's true that charisma is all that important in presidential races. Ever heard of William Jennings Bryan?

    3. Kylopod - Reagan, Clinton, GW and Obama were clearly more charismatic than their opponents. Voter behavior was very different in William Jennings Bryan's time -any campaign based on what worked 100 years ago is doomed. BTW - no sarcasm intended!

    4. First of all, I was identifying Massappeal's comment, not yours, as sarcastic.

      Second, it's interesting that you mention GWB in your list, when he actually lost the popular vote to the less charismatic candidate. (And GWB wasn't especially charismatic, just more so than Gore.) And do you really think Reagan's charisma is what enabled him to defeat a sitting president with a 31% approval rating? Actually, there's research suggesting that Reagan did worse than a generic Republican would have, and it's worth remembering that although his electoral victory was huge, he got less than 51% of the popular vote. As for Obama, after you consider the economic collapse, the historic unpopularity of the incumbent, McCain's erratic campaign, Sarah Palin, and a myriad of other plausible reasons, you can argue that Obama's charisma made some tiny contribution to his 7-point victory over an opponent who was not exactly uncharismatic--but it would be pretty hard to prove.

    5. Kylo - I think charisma plays a role, but it's obviously not the only factor. Of course I can't scientifically prove that charisma matters, but just imagine how Clinton would have done against Bush in 2004... People don't always vote for rational reasons -- the candidate who's able to deflect criticism and emmotionally connect with voters has a real advantage.

    6. I honestly don't know how Clinton (I assume you mean Bill; the other one actually did mull over a run that year) would have fared in '04 against Bush. All I know is that Kerry lost the election narrowly and he wasn't especially charismatic (though he did have gravitas). But it was also a much tougher election for the Democrats than '92 or '96, and Clinton never got a majority of the popular vote. I suspect Clinton, had he been eligible for a third term, would have beaten Bush in 2000, but that's for reasons other than charisma.

  8. Nicely put, Kylopod.

    The deal here is that Jonathan is a political scientist, and they believe (based on good evidence as far as I can tell, by the way), that adequate is good enough most of the time. Winners are made by fundamentals, and individual characteristics don't usually make the difference once you have an adequate candidate.

    Political scientists always acknowledge they can make the difference in a very close race, but they are scientific; close fundamentals are not that common, so better than adequate is (statistically) not very important.

    Partisans can never see it this way. They have to fight for every possible advantage every time, because even though matched fundamentals are rare they CAN HAPPEN. It is not a statistically driven approach.

    Part of a scientist's job is to be hyper-rational, and part of that is to throw cold water here and there.

    He's just doing his job.

    1. The funny thing is, I have seen the term "charisma" show up in social science, when describing the characteristics of sociopaths and cult leaders, among others. And Jon's theory about charisma is his own; I haven't heard any other political scientists affirm it.

    2. For what it's worth, I'm not familiar with any published research on perceptions of "charisma" as a DV. Doesn't mean there aren't any.

      That said, I kinda fall into a middle ground on this one. JB's point is definitely valid. Even in the worst of drubbings, partisans like their guy. It's part of partisanship.

      But, I also think it's foolish to deny the argument that some people are going to be persuaded to vote based on personal feelings towards candidates, rather than issues or partisanship.

      So, the question really becomes "how many votes would be different if we replaced an uncharismatic candidate with a charismatic one?" And, that gets REALLY tough. The problem is that we've already selected pretty heavily on the IV; you don't GET to be the nominee unless you have SOME charisma. Jimmy Carter was mentioned....the same Carter who got a Nobel Peace Prize later. George HW Bush spoke at my college graduation. I'm no fan, and I usually find him a wooden patrician. But, I can tell you that he was pretty darn charismatic.

      So, I think the answer to this question is that yes, partisans find all kinds of reasons to rally around their candidate, helped in no small part by partisan media and elites. And yes, it is better to be liked in the election than unliked. But, I really don't think this is a very answerable question. I just can't imagine what data would prove/disprove it.

    3. >JB's point is definitely valid.

      I think there's definitely truth to the idea that the press retroactively ascribes good qualities to winning candidates and bad qualities to losing ones. Al Gore "lost," and therefore he was a bad candidate, while Rove was the political mastermind of his generation. I'm pretty sure that had the Florida recount swung in Gore's favor and he eked out a victory of just 5 votes, the narrative about his candidacy would be quite different.

      Where I differ with JB is in his phrasing that a winner "acquires charisma," as if charisma isn't an objectively real concept but purely a matter of perception. I also don't think his theory holds up to scrutiny, even if you ignore the perception/reality distinction and focus entirely on media treatment. I don't think Carter or GWB were considered especially charismatic--likable and personable, sure, but not charismatic--and I'm unaware of any evidence that perceptions of their charisma increased between their entry into the race and their victory. Commenters brought up Nixon and GHWB, who were not commonly thought of as charismatic, and Jon replied that this was because they started in the vp chair. Thus, he was moving the goalposts at this point. I'm a big fan of Jon's commentary, but this was not one of his better pieces.

    4. Kylo,
      Couldn't charisma contain both ascribed elements AND some objective truth? In other words, couldn't you or I consider a given person to be charismatic partly because of who they are and partly because of our own self-deceptions or influence from others?

      I could see a world where George W. Bush was, on a scale of 1-10, a 7 on charisma in reality, but where a media narrative emerges (as one did) saying that "he worked across the aisle in Texas and had nicknames for everyone and the Democrats in Texas liked him too and isn't that great and doesn't it somehow makeup for his lack of intellect?" So, Bush SEEMS like an 8 on charisma to the consumers of that media, who are seeing the truth, but a mediated version of it.

      If that's possible, then the only real difference between yourself and JB is how much of the final signal is true signal and how much is noise. That's how I find myself in the middle ground on this; I think there's merit to both the signal and the noise arguments, and I'm not sure how I would be able to distinguish them.

    5. couldn't you or I consider a given person to be charismatic partly because of who they are and partly because of our own self-deceptions or influence from others?

      But you could say that about just about any quality we might ascribe to a politician. Some people view Obama as a weak president, others think he's a political mastermind way ahead of his opponents. Bush Sr. was described as a wimp, but many people would consider that characterization unfair. Does that mean that strength or wimpiness aren't objective qualities, or that Bush Sr. "became a wimp" when he entered office? I don't think so. Why must charisma be any different?

      >So, Bush SEEMS like an 8 on charisma to the consumers of that media

      Still, it's funny how these media perceptions don't change much, contrary to JB's theory. Take Al Gore. In many ways his media image has changed drastically over the course of his career--he has been viewed, at different times, as a moderate Southern Democrat, a leader of the environmental cause, a Boy Scout vp whose personal character contrasted favorably with Clinton's, a serial exaggerator who claimed to have invented the Internet, and a liberal cultural hero. But throughout all this, he was always considered wooden. I doubt that would have changed had he won the presidency. For that matter, perceptions of Bush's level of charisma didn't really change between his candidacy and his winning the presidency--though by his second term he was increasingly seen as arrogant.

    6. Ah, just when I thought I was out...(I'm supposed to be doing household tasks this evening):
      Several points.

      1. If we're crediting someone for "charisma doesn't exist", I'm pretty sure I got it from Nelson Polsby. If we're blaming someone for it, I'll take the blame.

      2. I think Tom's point is a little unfair -- I've said similar things many times, and part of what political scientists or any analysts should do includes factoring in what partisans do and should do.

      3. To Matt's point...I think the reason we can't imagine how to study it empirically is because it doesn't exist.

      4. But: I *do* think that there is some "there" there; I just don't think "charisma" is a very good way of getting at it. I'm far more comfortable talking about skills. So you want to tell me that Reagan is good at delivering speeches, or that JFK and FDR are good at dealing with members of the press in group settings, or that WJC is great at working a rope line...and then we could, perhaps, try to generalize out into some classifiable skills, and assess how various pols are at various things. I think that gets us somewhere. Charisma talk, in my strong opinion, just doesn't. Leave it to Weber, and move on.

      5. I strongly disagree that media perceptions don't change. Go look at coverage of Gore in 1988, and I'll be he had charisma or something close to it. Remember, I found citations for LBJ and RMN having charisma.

      5. And please, please, everyone: remember that elections are multivariable. Perhaps Goldwater loses by even more if he's less skilled (slipping back to my preferred vocabulary). The first place to begin is plugging in the prediction models to get some sense of all-else-equal, but even if those were definitive -- and you don't have to be Nate Silver to know that they aren't -- you still have all sorts of other stuff going on beyond how charismatic (or whatever) the two candidates were.

    7. >Go look at coverage of Gore in 1988, and I'll be he had charisma or something close to it.

      I did a Google News search on this. All I found was a line from one article, "Gore is cerebral, rarely charismatic." (The rest of the citations are either references to Jesse Jackson's charisma, or Dukakis's lack of it.) There were, on the other hand, three references in this time frame to Gore seeming "wooden."

      But even if you do find some articles describing him as charismatic or something close to it, I wouldn't be shocked. Searching 2007 articles, I see there are several references to Mitt Romney's "charisma." You think I'm joking? Here's one example: "Romney is smooth, charismatic, and handsome" (National Review, Aug. 24, 2007).

      What this goes to show is that pundits tend to get awfully superficial when there's a new boy in town. It has to do with seeing what you want to see, and it's easy to do that when you have little information. The fact is that Gore and Romney have never been widely viewed as charismatic--a few stray articles don't count--and that wouldn't change if either of them became president. In contrast, Reagan and Obama were described as charismatic in one press account after another from the moment they stepped onto the national political stage.

      >I think that gets us somewhere. Charisma talk, in my strong opinion, just doesn't.

      I'm not saying you have some obligation to consider charisma as a political scientist. It's not a scientific designation. But neither is wimpiness. Or egotism. Or gravitas. Or principle. That doesn't make these concepts meaningless.

    8. Romney's strength obverse of his weaknesses, which successful businessman isn't going to seem wealthy & out of touch, unless you are Steve Jobs? An election campaign will suit him better, its like our current Australian PM who leaves voters cold but I predict will be quite effective in an election campaign when it counts.

    9. "I don't think Carter or GWB were considered especially charismatic....."

      Carter's original appeal did include charisma -- or so it was called at the time:

      Also: "I hope Obama doesn't make the mistake of Jimmy Carter, who swept in on charisma but squandered his popular appeal by shrinking the expectations of the presidency, lecturing the public....." (Deepak Chopra, 2008)

    10. Carter's original appeal did include charisma -- or so it was called at the time

      I checked Google News. I only found about a dozen or so articles referring to Carter's "charisma." But here's the interesting thing: these references didn't increase as he scored electoral victories, but just the opposite. He was described as charismatic when he first appeared on the national stage. By November, these references had dwindled, and many of the ones that remained were negative, claiming that Carter either had lost his charisma or never had it to begin with. I saw no evidence to support Jon's thesis that Carter "acquired charisma" in the eyes of the media after winning. Here are several examples:

      "Another factor against Carter is that his alleged charisma -- which allowed him to 'bolt in' the Democratic nomination--has faded with his own Democratic Party supporters." (Nov. 1, 1976)

      "[I]t is true that Carter and Ford are hardly charismatic figures." (Nov. 14, 1976)

      "'I was never so disillusioned in my life,' Dr. Hemphill said.... '[Carter's] charisma wore thin. By election night, I was praying for Ford.'" (Nov. 12, 1976)

      "In a year which held an absence of galvanizing issues, a basic residual cynicism about politics in the post-Watergate era, and little charisma offered by either major party candidate, final voter turnout surfaced at 53 per cent, despite generally good weather, a tight race, and the relatively novel impact of the Presidential debates." (Nov. 10, 1976)

      "It is being written that early on, a lot of people couldn't get a firm fix on Jimmy Carter and his stands. It is also being said that neither candidate has the charisma to fire popular imagination, to generate enthusiasm." (Nov. 2, 1976)

    11. One thing that happened between the start of the race and the election is that Jerry Brown came into the picture, briefly, and was seen at least in some circles as a kind of New Age JFK. You don't look as charismatic when you've got an opponent that people, rightly or wrongly, are comparing to Kennedy. It's a lot easier when your opponents are Mo Udall, Bob Byrd and Scoop Jackson.

  9. I do have to register a small demurrer. In comment #1, Andrew says "Of course Mitt has some political skill. He did win a statewide election as a Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts, after all." This has one of the main themes of Mr Romney's supporters for a decade.

    I'd be the last to deny that a man who has emerged as the near-prohibitive favorite for a major party's presidential nomination is likely to have political skills. However, in 2002 Mr Romney became the fourth consecutive Republican to hold the governorship of Massachusetts. In the three previous elections, the Republican nominees had won 50.19% (1990,) 70.85% (1994,) and 58.57% (1998) of the vote respectively. Mr Romney's winning total of 49.77% thus represents a slight underperformance for a Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. Moreover, the wide margin by which his Lieutenant Governor lost in her 2006 attempt to succeed Mr Romney (55.64% to 35.33%) would suggest that four years of a Romney administration had been at least one of the factors that soured Bay Staters on the Republican Party.


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