The home-stretch runs of presidential campaigns reliably feature a distinctive tone and tempo: The pace quickens, the crowds build, and the adrenaline surges, as the candidates frantically crisscross the country, wired and sleepless and fueled by the sense (justified or not) that the wind is at their backs. But the final week of this year’s election was not like that at all. Instead it was a week when nature intruded with a historically horrible storm, injecting a dose of heavy reality into a campaign that, all too often and maddeningly, has been utterly divorced from it.
For much of 2012, Barack Obama’s team fretted over nothing more than the possibility of an exogenous event that would fundamentally alter the presidential race, laying waste to their minutely calibrated victory plan. But instead, when that bitch Sandy huffed and puffed, it was Mitt Romney’s house that took the hit. It wasn’t just that the hurricane allowed Obama both to be and appear to be manifestly presidential. Or that the devastation the storm wrought highlighted the importance of infrastructure and the vital role of government in times of crisis. The problem for Romney was more basic and brutish: Through no fault of his own, he found himself rendered irrelevant, a man without a role to play. At the first presidential debate, it was Obama who imitated Clint Eastwood’s empty chair; in the wake of Sandy, it was Romney who had the part thrust upon him, along with the worst fate imaginable for a presidential challenger: a weeklong news blackout.
Should Romney fall short on November 6, you can bet the mortgage money that more than a few Republicans will put the blame on Sandy, arguing that the GOP nominee’s supposed surge of momentum was one of the storm’s casualties. There will be something to this, to be sure, but much less than meets the eye. The truth is that if Romney loses, he will have only himself to blame—and the same is true, in the opposite scenario, for President Obama. Neither man ran a campaign worthy of himself, of the country, or of the scale of the challenges the country faces. And both made strategic and tactical errors that, whichever of them bites the dust, history will judge as having done him in.
When it comes to Romney, maybe the pivotal mistake was made nearly four years ago—but the extent to which it haunts him was vividly on display in the campaign’s closing days. At a rally in Ohio on October 25, the Republican suggested that Chrysler was considering shuttering Jeep production in the state and moving it to China. This was false, and the company said so. But that had no effect on Boston, which proceeded to release TV and radio ads insinuating the same, claiming Obama had “sold Chrysler to the Italians, who are going to build Jeeps in China,” and tarring GM similarly. This called forth even harsher repudiations from both auto firms, which pointed out that they are adding U.S. jobs, not subtracting them. “We’ve clearly entered some parallel universe during these last few days,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said, labeling Romney’s gambit as “campaign politics at its cynical worst.”
Cynical, yes. Also desperate. But easy enough to understand. With the result of the election turning to a large degree on the outcome in Ohio, Team Romney has long struggled to counteract the popularity there of Obama’s bailout of the auto industry, which directly touches 82 of the state’s 88 counties—a bailout that Romney not only opposed but opposed loudly, vehemently, and most famously in a 2008 New York Times op-ed piece that bore the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” What exactly Romney was thinking when he wrote that article is unclear. But, if he loses Ohio and the election, doing so may have been the most fateful decision of the campaign, and one that he made long before he was even an announced candidate.
And this is just one of many past positions that have been flesh-piercing thorns in Romney’s side. Of more recent vintage were a series of stances he adopted during his fight for his party’s nomination, all of which cost him dearly with key constituencies. The hard-right line on immigration he took to fend off Rick Perry: anathema to many Hispanics. The ultraconnish posture on Planned Parenthood and contraceptives that he took to thwart Rick Santorum: poison among suburban women. The denialist shadings of his previous statements on climate change, issued to placate the flat-Earth crowd: insanity to young voters. And so on, and so on.
The alienation of these voting blocs, which constitute the ascendant elements of the American electoral landscape, goes a long way to explaining how Romney could be running dead even with Obama nationally but still stubbornly if narrowly behind in many of the battleground states. Were it not for the president’s daunting 40-to-50-point lead with Latinos, for instance, Romney would surely be ahead in Colorado, Nevada, Florida, Virginia, and maybe even New Mexico.