Mitt Romney has run a miserable campaign. If the election were held tomorrow, he would lose—a stunning situation, given our continuing economic woes. Absent a catastrophe at home or abroad that shifts public perceptions, he has only one opportunity to turn things around—the first presidential debate. But if the past is any guide, the opening is wider than many now believe.
In 2004, on the eve of the Republican convention, George W. Bush and John Kerry were essentially tied. On August 30, to be precise, Bush’s support averaged 45.7 percent, Kerry’s, 45.0 percent. The Democratic convention had failed to give the party’s nominee much of a bounce, and many observers expected the same result for the Republicans.
Nonetheless, the Republican convention successfully rallied the public behind its nominee. Within a week, Bush’s margin had soared to 7.6 points (50.4 to 42.8), a gain that was slow to erode. For the four weeks between the end of his convention and the first debate, his support averaged 49.2 percent, and his margin averaged 5.9 points. Despite the mounting unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Kerry was having difficulty establishing his bona fides as an alternative, and Bush seemed to be on course to a comfortable reelection victory.
Then on September 30 came the first debate, in which Kerry’s performance substantially exceeded expectations. Within a week, Bush’s lead had fallen by more than two thirds, to only 1.8 points, and it stayed in that zone for the remainder of the campaign. The second and third presidential debates perturbed this pattern only slightly. From October 1 through Election Day on November 2, Bush’s edge over Kerry averaged 2.5 points—precisely the margin of his eventual victory.
In sum, the 2004 conventions established one equilibrium, which the first debate replaced with a very different one. The former didn’t come close to predicting the final result, while the latter mirrored it. And the change between the two was a shift of 3.4 points in favor of the challenger. If history were to repeat itself, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would be in a dead heat within days after the first 2012 debate.
Can Romney change the flow of the 2012 election the way Kerry did eight years ago? Not on the basis of what he has done thus far. Consider the opportunity he had last spring. Economic growth was slowing, as was job creation. Unemployment was stuck above 8 percent. Household incomes were mired well below the depressed levels of 2009. A majority of the people opposed the president’s signature domestic policy achievement—the Affordable Care Act—as they had for more than three years. An even larger majority believed that the country was off on the wrong track.
Romney squandered his chance. He failed to develop either a consistent line of attack against the president’s economic management or a persuasive alternative to it. Rather than sustaining a consistent theme, he lurched from issue to issue in response to the events of the day. He failed to counter the entirely predictable attacks on his leadership at Bain. He allowed the controversy of his tax returns to linger. He compounded these felonies with a seemingly endless series of gaffes, capped by a pratfall-filled foreign trip. His convention was by a considerable margin the least effective in decades. His selection of Paul Ryan shifted attention from his greatest potential strength—the economy—to the House Republicans’ politically toxic budget. And for a man whose supposed calling-card was managerial competence, Romney has run his own campaign very poorly indeed. If the plausible and thus far unrebutted stories about the chaotic composition of his acceptance speech are true, something has gone badly awry. He has no one to blame but himself, because every presidential candidate gets the campaign he deserves.
And now, with his back to the wall, no strategist or speechwriter can help. Only Mitt Romney can turn his campaign around. In little more than a week, we’ll find out whether he has what it takes to stare down an incumbent president. Nothing since he secured the Republican nomination should give his supporters much confidence that he does.