Have you heard? The Romney campaign is rebooting. After two weeks of slipping poll numbers, Mitt Romney’s advisers began the week by announcing the campaign would change course. But how?
Depending on which media account you’re reading, you’re liable to get a different answer. The New York Times says Romney will sharpen his message. The Washington Post indicates he will redouble his emphasis on the economy, while Buzzfeed reports that the campaign has decided the economy isn’t enough. Politico, whose dishy account of turbulence in Boston helped spur the switch, says the new strategy is to make the election “a referendum on ‘status quo vs. change'” — which, by definition, seems more like a choice than a referendum. Got it?
The likeliest outcome of all these calls for change may be that little will change. Campaigns planning to recalibrate their tactics generally don’t advertise. So the promises to reshuffle the deck may reflect an effort to reset the race — acknowledging a rough patch so it can move on, assuaging conservative critics, dangling bait for the media — without actually changing much. It’s the opposite of the infamous Etch A Sketch maneuver. Instead of quietly wiping the slate clean, the chorus trumpeting a strategy shift lends cover to keep the status quo.
On a “message call” the campaign held Monday morning with reporters, senior Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said the campaign would begin to zero in on the specifics of Romney’s policies, with a “new emphasis and renewed emphasis” on how they would help middle-class voters. “The timing is right, at this moment, to reinforce the specifics of the Romney plan for the middle class,” said Gillespie. The aftermath of a convention that focused on giving voters more information about Romney, he said, was a “natural time” to give them additional information about the polices the Republican nominee will promote.
Gillespie said the campaign’s research suggests that voters know Romney has a slate of policies distinct from Obama’s but are eager to hear him explain the positive effects that will accrue: “If we make this change, how is it going to make my life better?” The pledge to delve deeper into policy — through a combination of TV ads, speeches, surrogates and white papers — may also be an attempt to mollify the conservatives who have begun grousing about the Romney campaign’s lack of specificity.
But judging by the lack of specificity on the call, Romney isn’t about to open the kimono too wide. Gillespie declined to cite the loopholes that Romney’s tax plan would close to meet its goal of balancing the budget while cutting rates, or name new government agencies that Romney would merge or close. The approach Gillespie signaled — like explaining how the approval of the Keystone Pipeline and offshore drilling would help the U.S. achieve energy independence by 2020 — is consistent with what Romney is already doing on the stump. What’s more, Gillespie indicated the campaign was not intending to break ground with new ideas. “We’re not rolling out new policy,” he said.
The Romney campaign may believe its primary task is to better articulate the policies it has laid out. Asked why support for Obama’s tax plan eclipsed that of the Republican nominee’s in a recent poll, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, “I’m not sure that voters really understand the differences.” Maybe not. But as it tries to pull out of a brief tailspin, the campaign has compounded its problem by indulging in a public round of finger-pointing.
The primary revelation of Sunday night’s splashy Politico story was the number of “advisers” lined up to chuck Romney Svengali Stuart Stevens under a bus. And for what? Junking a convention speech? The one Romney delivered accomplished what it set out to do. Making late-night phone calls? Floating bad ideas that never came to pass?
For Republicans, the trouble with this kind of scapegoating is that it calcifies the conventional wisdom, which is that Romney is losing a winnable race. After all, if the blame is being assigned this early, he must be. The perception that Romney trails, fomented by stories portraying a campaign in disarray, could deter deep-pocketed donors from ponying up further or spur outside groups to divert their cash to efforts to win control of the Senate.
For Romney, the tragedy of the blame-Stevens chorus is that it magnifies a problem that may have been fading. Romney is behind, most crucially in a couple of key swing states, like Ohio. But he’s not behind by much. Obama’s postconvention bounce was aided by a massive TV advertising binge. He ran some 40,000 ads on broadcast and national cable channels during the period from Aug. 26 to Sept. 8, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project, which studies ad spending. That tally is more than twice what Romney’s team put up. “During both the Democratic and Republican conventions, pro-Obama advertisers dominated the airwaves in numerous markets, including key swing states such as Colorado, Ohio, Nevada and Virginia,” explained Erika Franklin Fowler, a co-director of the project. “This advantage may help to explain why Obama’s ‘convention bounce’ was larger than Romney’s.” As that advantage tapers off, the bounce has faded: today’s Gallup tracking survey has Obama’s lead at 3 points, down from 7 last week.
Even if all the talk of change is mostly just talk, the Romney campaign has certainly evolved since it kicked off 15 months ago. “Over course of campaign, Romney has changed from a pragmatic, capable manager into a dog-whistling culture warrior,” conservative commentator David Frum wrote Monday on Twitter. The implication? Don’t blame the staff, or even the muddled message. Blame the messenger.