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Poor Romney. Maybe.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 9th, 2012

The Wall Street Journal’s Sara Murray and Patrick O’Connor propose a surprising, but well-reported theory why Romney lost the 2016 election. Despite 2012 being the most expensive election in American history at $6 billion (NYTimes), Romney’s campaign failed for lack of money! – lack of money at the right time, that is:

The GOP nominee emerged late last spring from a long and bruising Republican primary season more damaged than commonly realized. His image with voters had eroded as he endured heavy attacks from Republicans over his business record. He also felt compelled to take a hard line on immigration—one that was the subject of debate among his advisers—that hurt his standing with Hispanic voters.

The Romney campaign decided to prioritize fundraising, but…

… in the eyes of top aides in both campaigns, that early summer period when Mr. Romney was busy fundraising was perhaps the biggest single reason he lost the election.  The Obama campaign spent heavily while Mr. Romney couldn’t, launched a range of effective attacks on the Republican nominee and drove up voters’ negative perceptions of Mr. Romney.  The problem: Mr. Romney had burned through much of his money raised for the primaries, and by law, he couldn’t begin spending his general-election funds until he accepted the GOP nomination late in the summer.

Digby, at “Hullabaloo,” dismisses the theory (“the silliest rationalization for his loss yet”), wondering why Romney didn’t dip into his own millions, if he was in such dire straits in the early summer.  She’s one of my favorite pundits — she ought to be writing for the Post or the Times — and this is a good question that should have been answered in the article. (A possible answer is that even rich people prefer spending other people’s millions when possible, and their own only when necessary.) But Digby might also admit it’s pretty telling that what Romney actually did — whether because he was cheap, or because he had to — was to fundraise in the early summer, instead of campaigning in swing states or fighting back hard with ad buys of his own.

It’s understandable to resist the theory that Romney’s defeat was as self-inflicted as this story suggests.  It brings Democrats and lefties alike back to the abyss they were staring into after Obama’s first debate: the realization that Romney could really win despite gaffes, woodenness, predator capitalist background, and everything else — because Obama’s candidacy and record weren’t really all that strong either.  As it turned out, Obama recovered and competently eked out a series of narrow state-level wins, capitalizing on a fine organization.  But it was a close run thing.

If true, the Murray/O’Connor story isn’t a lesson I particularly like either.  My slender hope for Democrats in 2016 is a sustained, hopefully successful challenge by a true left campaign against whatever neoliberal candidate — e.g., Cuomo, O’Malley, perhaps Clinton after all — wins the early money race.  But if there really was a net strategic price paid for the bruising GOP primary process, rather than a net benefit of some kind — it would be a lesson for Democrats (and independent-minded allies like myself)  to bear in mind and try to guard against four years from now.  The Republican scorched-earth primary battle in 2012 may have cost their candidate the general election in a very straightforward, for-want-of-sufficient-funds way.

The trick, if there was a way to pull it off, would be not to engage in internecine warfare during the primary season for very much longer than the Republicans did.  That, in turn, would presumably make early primary victories even more important.  That’s happened before for an insurgent campaign, but good luck with avoiding a long primary battle.

If even a Romney couldn’t (or wouldn’t) afford a “naked,” low cash-on-hand early summer, a relatively poor, relatively outsider Democratic candidate would be more vulnerable yet.  At the end of Election Day, Citizens United and the avalanche of campaign cash seems not to have made a big difference in the 2012 presidential race.  But their specters already loom over the next election, distorting the process and favoring candidates with the right kind of friends: the rich kind.

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