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.

Mitt Romney speaks on Thursday at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.
Mitt Romney speaks on Thursday at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos for Slate.

How does Mitt Romney plan to win the election over the next two months? He just told you. All his messages are laid out in the speech he delivered last night at the Republican convention. Here’s a review of the speech and a preview of what’s ahead.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. High expectations. Suffering makes people unhappy, but prolonged suffering depresses their expectations. This helps Obama by lowering the standards against which a president is judged. Romney wants to raise the bar. Last night, he compared Obama with previous presidents, asserting that all of them except Jimmy Carter could claim to have made people better off after four years. He used the word disappointment or its variants four times. And he reminded voters of the higher aspirations they had once entertained:

Every family in America wanted this to be a time when they could get ahead a little more, put aside a little more for college, do more for their elderly mom who’s living alone now, or give a little more to their church or charity. Every small business wanted these to be their best years ever, when they could hire more, do more for those who had stuck with them through the hard times, open a new store, or sponsor that Little League team. Every new college graduate thought they’d have a good job by now, a place of their own, and that they could start paying back some of their loans and build for the future. This is when our nation was supposed to start paying down the national debt and rolling back those massive deficits. This was the hope and change America voted for. It’s not just what we wanted. It’s not just what we expected. It’s what Americans deserved.

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Romney didn’t mention that this era of high expectations actually ended in the meltdown of 2008, before Obama’s election. For that reason, and because it’s inconvenient, Obama will reject it. He’ll propose a lower standard, measuring his record against the depressed expectations of the post-meltdown months in which he took office. Last night, Romney tried to shake people out of that mentality. “This isn’t something we have to accept,” he pleaded, adding that the decline of our expectations is itself a sign of failure: “For the first time, the majority of Americans now doubt that our children will have a better future. It is not what we were promised.”

2. The Obama economy. In his remarks, Romney lamented that

this Obama economy has crushed the middle class. Family income has fallen by $4,000. But health insurance premiums are higher, food prices are higher, utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices have doubled. Today more Americans wake up in poverty than ever before. Nearly one out of six Americans is living in poverty. … His policies have not helped create jobs, they have depressed them.

The numbers are familiar and will be vigorously debated. Romney will focus on the unemployment rate; Obama will focus on the number of new jobs created. But the key phrase tying it all together for Romney is Obama economy. Those two words, repeatedly paired, will burden the president with perceived responsibility for the weak economy, regardless of the extent to which he (as opposed to President Bush, Wall Street, Europe, congressional Republicans, or other factors) is at fault.

3. Nothing personal. Obama’s attacks have plainly irked Romney, and the GOP convention showed how broadly Republican leaders and delegates loathe the president. But to win the election, Romney needs to attract voters who still like Obama personally. So Romney embraced their sympathy. “I wish President Obama had succeeded,” he professed. But he concluded:

You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him. The president hasn’t disappointed you because he wanted to. The president has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction. … Americans have supported this president in good faith. But today, the time has come to turn the page.

Romney’s message here is that you don’t have to be a hater or a right-winger to vote him out of office. It’s OK to like the president. And it’s OK, all the same, to fire him.

4. Business experience. Romney won the Republican primaries by running as a businessman, not a governor. Obama punished Romney for that approach, damaging him in polls by painting him as a rich, ruthless capitalist. In the general election, Romney had another option: He could contrast himself with Obama not as a businessman but as an executive, since Romney had been a governor while Obama, prior to his election as president, was never more than a legislator. Running as a successful state executive might broaden Romney’s image, highlighting his ability to help people, not just make money.

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