Romney’s Message Strategy For the Fall Campaign

How you look at things.
Aug. 31 2012 1:01 PM

Mitt's Messages

Romney’s convention speech is a preview of the fall campaign.

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Four weeks ago, Romney showed signs of switching to the governor message. But his convention speech signaled that he’s doubling down instead on the businessman message. Obama “took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task,” said Romney. “He had almost no experience working in a business. Jobs to him are about government.” By contrast, Romney argued,

I learned the real lessons about how America works from experience. … That business we started with 10 people has now grown into a great American success story. Some of the companies we helped start are names you know. An office supply company called Staples, where I’m pleased to see the Obama campaign has been shopping. The Sports Authority, which became a favorite of my sons. We started an early childhood learning center called Bright Horizons that First Lady Michelle Obama rightly praised. At a time when nobody thought we’d ever see a new steel mill built in America, we took a chance and built one in a cornfield in Indiana. Today Steel Dynamics is one of the largest steel producers in the United States. These are American success stories.

Romney is betting that the success stories he can tell from his years at Bain Capital will outweigh the failed investments and tragic layoffs that were hammered by Democratic ads. The political rationale for making this bet is that Romney can heavily outspend Obama on TV ads for the next two months. The risk is that the stories of failure, outsourcing, and layoffs may have sunk into voters’ conscience in a way that no success stories can undo.

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5. Class warfare kills jobs. This is Romney’s most creative message, and it might be his most crucial. Here’s how he put it last night:

Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression? In America, we celebrate success, we don’t apologize for it. … His plan to raise taxes on small business won’t add jobs, it will eliminate them. His assault on coal and gas and oil will send energy and manufacturing jobs to China …

The message isn’t just that taxes and regulations hurt the economy. The message is that even Obama’s rhetoric hurts the economy. The phrase “attacks success” conflates Obama’s words with his deeds. It implies that every time Obama complains about offshoring, portrays Romney as a cold-hearted capitalist, or suggests that rich people should pay more taxes, he’s discouraging business and slowing the recovery. Persuadable voters are unhappy with the lousy economy but aren’t sure what, if anything, Obama has done to cause it. At worst, they see his failure as incompetence. The “attacking success” message gives them a sharper answer. It attributes the weakness of the recovery not to bad luck or incompetence but to Obama’s ideology. And it creates a possibility that Romney can jujitsu Obama’s main pitch—that he’s the president of the middle class against the rich.

If that possibility pans out—if Romney can make Obama’s message self-destructive by chaining it to the economy’s struggles as a causal factor—Romney will win the election. And this, in turn, could explain why Romney is doubling down on his decision to run as a businessman. The businessman image and the class warfare argument work together. They form a coherent narrative about how Obama harmed the economy, how he would continue to impede it, and why Romney can be expected to make things better.

6. Freedom. This is a familiar Republican refrain, but Romney put his own spin on it:

We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better. They came not just in pursuit of the riches of this world but for the richness of this life. Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom to speak their mind. Freedom to build a life. And yes, freedom to build a business. With their own hands. This is the essence of the American experience.

That’s a very well-constructed appeal. It links the interests of poor strivers to the interests of thriving industrialists. It links social conservatives not just to economic conservatives but to libertarians. It broadens the GOP demographically, welcoming immigrants of all nationalities to the party’s worldview. And it weaves these groups together to form a definition of America that’s cultural and conservative without being ethnic.

7. Selective socialism. Despite his paeans to freedom, Romney underscored his intention to defend two enormous areas of government spending. Obama’s “trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs,” said Romney. “His $716 billion cut to Medicare to finance Obamacare will both hurt today’s seniors and depress innovation—and jobs—in medicine.”

That’s a straight-up, double-barreled betrayal of the GOP’s stated principles about fiscal responsibility, dependency, and the size of government. Will Romney get away with it? Probably. It might even win Florida and Virginia for him. The question then, for his party and his country, will be what kind of mandate and future he has won.

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