Now that the election is over and the bloated corpse of the Romney campaign lies dead in a field somewhere in Ohio, it is time for the autopsy. Having closely watched the campaign for over a year these are the ten biggest mistake I believe Mitt Romney made, in roughly chronological order. For me a true campaign mistake is different from a gaffe or simple bad luck. For it to really be a “mistake,” it had to be a planned political decision.
1) “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” – Almost four years ago Romney very publicly came out against the auto bailout, which ended up hurting him in the critical swing state of Ohio. From purely a political perspective this move had almost no upside for Romney and a lot of potential downside. If the auto bailout failed it would have been devastating to Obama regardless how strongly Romney opposed it. Instead, it succeeded in making Romney look bad in Ohio.
2) Not making sure his primary opponents were crushed – There were a few times when Romney mistakenly assumed a primary opponent was defeated so he didn’t spend big to deliver the kill stroke. The most memorable was probably right before the caucuses on February 7th. This proved to be a penny wise, pound foolish move. It let the primary drag on which really hurt Romney. The long primary sank Romney’s favorable rating, forced the campaign to waste money, and kept Romney from pivoting towards the general election.
3) Self deportation – During the primary Romney took a position on immigration that was not only to the right of George W. Bush and John McCain, but also to the right of most of his primary opponents. The economic downturn hit Hispanics hard and Obama did not deliver much for them in his first term. There was the real possibility that if Romney had taken a very different stance on immigration he would have done as well as or even slightly better than McCain did with Hispanics in 2008. Instead, Romney chose to alienate this important group and Obama ended up winning Hispanics by a significantly larger margin this time.
4) Not releasing tax returns – Romney claims there was nothing bad in his tax returns. If that was true he should have just released five years worth and put an end to the story, instead it became a long running distraction. It seems like there were ten times as many stories about Romney not releasing his returns than stories about what was in the returns he released.
5) Letting Obama define him early – The Obama campaign blanketed the swing states with ads against Romney months before the election, while the Romney campaign saved most of its campaign ad spending for the final stretch. This let Obama define Romney in those states and the image stuck. Romney ended up having one of the worst favorable ratings of any modern candidate.
6) A disastrous foreign trip – Romney’s foreign trip was meant to show that despite his lack of foreign policy experience he could handle himself on the world stage. Instead, Romney’s performance, which included insulting the United Kingdom right before the Olympics, had the opposite effect.
7) Picking Paul Ryan – Paul Ryan was simply a bad pick. Ryan was supposed to help Romney in Wisconsin but Obama ended up winning Wisconsin by a wider margin than he did Pennsylvania. Ryan was supposed to make the election about big issues but once it was clear that his positions were toxic, Romney spent weeks awkwardly distancing himself from Ryan’s budget. Ryan also become a source of distraction at several points. Campaign time that should have been focused on the economy was instead spent talking about Medicare vouchers or Ryan’s hard right abortion stance.
8) The empty chair convention – Obama got a bounce out of his convention, but Romney failed to get any bounce from his own. The big news stories from the GOP convention were about Ryan’s lies and Clint Eastwood’s empty chair. One of the most touching speeches ever at a political convention was the older Massachusetts couple who talked about how Romney helped their dying son. Yet almost no one saw this speech because they were given an early slot so Clint Eastwood could ramble when the network TV cameras were rolling.
9) A terrible first response to the Benghazi attack – The terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi could have been a problem for Obama. A better campaign might have been able to make it part of a broad foreign policy critique, but the Romney campaign’s crass and factually inaccurate first response ruined Romney’s credibility on the issue.
10) Losing the ground game – The Obama ground game simply crushed Romney. Given that the Obama team had effectively been building their ground game for over four years, it was probably impossible for Romney to have as strong a field operation, but the Romney team could have done much better. Romney overinvested in TV ads when the airwaves were already saturated and simply didn’t hire nearly as many inexpensive ground level campaign workers.