Commentary Magazine


Focus on the Candidate, Not the Spending

After a week in which Mitt Romney allowed himself to become a mainstream media piñata, the Republican’s campaign is in the unenviable position of having to calm the frayed nerves of supporters who feel that a few days of bad polling numbers mean that all is lost. There is good reason for Republicans to be concerned about the way the race has gone since the conventions, but with most of the national polls still within the margin of error, the instinct to panic is, at best, premature. Nevertheless, it is likely that a New York Times article that noted that the Romney campaign is being “tightfisted” with its campaign treasury and allowing itself to be outspent in key states is bound to raise some alarms in the GOP.

But if anyone thinks the problem with the Romney campaign is that they are as cheap as the candidate supposedly is in his private life, they are missing the point about recent events. One can debate the wisdom of the campaign’s decision-making process about ad buys. But as the now infamous 47 percent video indicated, the trouble with the Romney campaign is Romney, not its pace of spending.

The Times article has the feel of a piece intended to feed the fears of Republican Chicken Littles who think Romney’s Boston headquarters is flushing their chances of winning down the drain. But while the response from the Romney camp to the effect that they have spent their money “smartly and efficiently” sounds sensible, the candidate’s supporters are bound to wonder whether waiting until later in the campaign to start spending all the money that has been raised is wise. It is difficult to know in advance when the crisis in an election campaign has come, but if there was ever a moment when it felt as if Romney’s hopes were hanging in the balance it is now. If his advisors think it’s too soon to start a massive effort to counter the negative messages being conveyed by the Democrats and the media, it may be too late to do any good when they think the time is right.

As I wrote yesterday, there is no reason for Republicans to give up just because the media is telling them to do so. Romney does have time to make up lost ground and there are still a host of issues concerning the economy and foreign policy on which he can score points against the president.

But the focus on advertisements tells us nothing about why Romney is still trailing the president or how he can change that.

It’s worth recalling that some of Romney’s opponents in the Republican primaries noted at the time that he wouldn’t be able to overwhelm President Obama with ad buys the way he did some of his GOP foes. That was true. But the conclusion to be drawn from this lesson is broader than that.

Journalists have covered the fundraising race between the two parties this year with almost as much interest as they did the contest for Republican convention delegates when the nomination was still in doubt. Money is the mother’s milk of politics. It is vital to running a credible campaign and its absence can doom an otherwise viable contender. But money alone never bought the presidency for any candidate. That is especially true when you consider the enormous sums both the president and the GOP standard-bearer have raised and which in practice almost cancel each other out.

It may be that it would be extremely helpful to the Republican effort for the campaign to invest heavily in ads in swing states right now. And if Obama’s lead starts to expand now, we may look back and accuse Romney’s advisors of making a critical mistake by saving their money for a subsequent offensive.

But Romney isn’t trailing in Ohio, Florida and Virginia — states he must win — because of Obama’s advertising or because too few GOP ads are being put on the air. He’s losing because of a widespread perception fed by his own gaffes, that the candidate is not presenting a viable alternative to the president. That may be unfair, but it is a perception that is based on his failure to close the deal with voters at a time when the country is in the sort of economic distress that might otherwise cause an incumbent to lose.

The obsession with the impact of money on the race has been a convenient theme for Democrats who like to pretend that the Republicans are trying to buy the election. That probably won’t change even if, as was the case in 2008, the Democrats wind up outspending the GOP this year. But it would be foolish for Republicans to buy into this idea by complaining loudly about the Romney camp’s spending. More ads may well help him, but no ad will save his candidacy if he continues to drift and allow his opponents to define him by his gaffes.

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