Lessons of ’08: Romney’s Rivals Could Collude

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As my colleague Michael Crowley notes, the anti-Mitt Romney vote is still a lot bigger than the pro-Romney vote. I agree with Michael that Romney doesn’t have this thing as sewn up as the inside the Beltway pundits are saying. That said, he’s smartly playing his rivals off of one another to ensure that that anti-Romney vote is never consolidated.

Looking back at the 2007/08 campaign, Romney in many ways was the man to beat. He won the Ames Straw poll, he spent tens of millions of dollars of his own money, he was the first candidate up with TV ads and by January 2, 2008, he was the front-runner in most polls. So, how did he lose the nomination? The rest of the field ganged up on him.

The above is a clip of the ABC/WMUR/Facebook debate on Jan. 5, 2008, in New Hampshire. As the New York Times put it in an article headlined “Romney Leads in Ill Will Among G.O.P. Candidates,” “the New Hampshire debate was striking in that it amounted to a gang tackle of Mr. Romney.” By the end 2007, the only thing the rest of the field could agree upon was how much they disliked Romney. And that shared dislike eventually bred collusion.

Many were convinced that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee stayed in the race long after his chance at the nomination was shot in order to split Romney’s support and aid John McCain. Huckabee denied this, naturally and accused Romney of being “pretentious and arrogant” for letting his surrogates tell voters that “a vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain.” But Huckabee held on, and McCain won South Carolina and Florida, securing the nomination.

This time around, Romney has learned from his mistakes. He’s not trying to play in anyone else’s lane as he did in 2007/08. Back then he tried to play ready commander (McCain), pious leader (Huckabee) and national security buff (Rudy Giuliani), all at once. This time around he’s just a former CEO looking to fix the economy. He leaves abortion to Michele Bachmann, who likes him for it (she must have loved that soft ball he lobbed at her in Tuesday night’s debate). He leaves God to Perry. Even Herman Cain seems to like Romney. He’s dividing and conquering his foes, ensuring they’ll never gang up on him. And it helps that there is no consensus counter point – no McCain – in this race.

“There are two reasons these attacks are just bouncing off Romney,” says Todd Harris, a former McCain adviser. “First, most of this is old news that voters already know and have already factored in, which means it has little to no shock value. Second, this election is all about the economy, and a whole lot of Republicans see Romney as the candidate best able to turn it around, so they’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on things they wouldn’t in 2008.” If Romney’s rivals ever hope to prevent him from getting that benefit of the doubt, they might need to team up.

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