What if Romney had won?
Well, of course, he didn’t. But–suppose he had. How might the experts be explaining it?
They would be explaining it, you know. In the aftermath of President Obama’s victory, ‘the experts’ have been coming out of the woodwork with all sorts of macro- and micro-explanations for why the outcome was such an inevitability. But it was a close race. A few votes here, a few there, and the result might have been very different. And if it had been–the experts would have been ready. It wouldn’t have sounded unfamiliar either.
1. First Debate. Romney’s surprising and convincing win over a lackluster Obama turned the campaign around. It destroyed the old maxim that “debates don’t change election results.” It may not have been a knockout blow, but like Muhammad Ali’s win over Sonny Liston in 1964, it gave the Romney aura of a fighting “champ.”
2. The “Etch A Sketch” maneuver. Romney executed a transformation from a hardline conservative primary contestant to a moderate general election candidate that old-line Republican voters could support. And he did it deftly, at the last minute, before Democrats could do anything other than complain, and after Republican conservatives had committed to him.
3. Dealing with House Republicans. By persuading people that he could bring the House and Senate together for some kind of practical response to the deficit emergency, Romney took votes from people who otherwise would have preferred Obama, but thought congressional Republicans would never deal with him.
4. Winning a large majority of the biggest voting bloc. Although most of the talk during the campaign was about Obama’s overwhelming support from African American and Latino voters, Romney built on his solid support from the largest, by far, voting bloc—whites. Demographic trends favor Democrats in the long run. But today’s majority–whites–can still deliver an election to a candidate who gains their favor.
5. Money. The barrage of television ads purchased by Republican independent political committees moved enough last-minute deciders in the swing states to make the difference in close races.
6. Primary seasoning. Common wisdom says that this year’s Republican primary debates and opposition messaging damaged Romney for the fall campaign. On the other hand, he was stronger and better prepared for a hard campaign than Obama, who did not know what a hard knock was until the first debate.
7. Economy. Romney wisely never outlined a plan for dealing with the economy, preferring simply to declare that his record of economic success was better than Obama’s. This widespread, but unproven, conclusion that Romney was better than Obama on the economy garnered votes from people who disagreed with him about women’s reproductive issues, health care reform, foreign policy, and other important issues.
8. Romney’s fortress in the South and West. Although conventional wisdom emphasized Obama’s safe states, Romney had locks on a large bloc of southern and western states, in which he did not need to spend a single minute or a single dime to win. That freed him to challenge in some of Obama’s safe states as well as to devote more resources in the crucial swing states where he won the election.
9. Gaining grudging respect. Although Romney never overcame the likability barrier, voters came to admire his public service record, strong family loyalty, and the ethical personal life he lived in conformity with the tenets of his Mormon faith. The seal of approval from Billy Graham gave any remaining skeptics license to vote for Romney.
10. Voter intimidation. The dark side of Romney’s victory came from successful efforts to discourage likely Obama supporters from voting. Shortened early voting periods, real and rumored new voter ID requirements, inadequate election resources in minority precincts: all made just enough difference in close states to give Romney the edge.
11. Benghazi. Although not the October Surprise that Romney tried to make it, the Benghazi tragedy and its aftermath created doubts about Obama’s anti-terrorist credentials, competence, and credibility.
12. One regret. About the surprising loss to Obama in North Carolina, the Romney campaign explained, “The resources we moved from there to other swing states were key to our overall victory. We make no apology for that decision.”