Mitt Romney’s lack of charm may not matter in this US election. America’s economy needs this proven turnaround artist
If you’re outside the United States, in Britain say, the last time you checked in Mitt Romney was the privileged, hapless candidate born with a silver foot in his mouth who had managed to screw up what should have been the easiest possible assignment – making nice to London on the eve of the Olympics – and was surely destined to go down to defeat in November at the hands of that master rhetorician and campaigner, Barack Obama.
If that’s your view, you may want to sit down. For Romney and Obama are now locked in a bitingly tight contest, one that the Republican candidate has a good – and increasing – prospect of winning. On 7 November there is an even, maybe better than even, chance that the world will wake up to President Romney.
This is not a verdict on Romney’s speech here in Florida, formally accepting his party’s nomination. That was a bland affair – even supporters called it “workmanlike” – which drew a tepid response in the hall. Nor did Romney reveal previously hidden gifts for oratory or suddenly show himself to be a warm, telegenic match for Obama. Instead it is an assessment of the basic political reality, one in which those defects of Romney’s might not even matter.
Start with two numbers that are horrible for Obama. The first is his poll rating, which remains stubbornly below 50%. History suggests that incumbent presidents unable to break the 50% barrier at this stage end up serving just one term. The second figure, which goes a long way to explaining the first, is the statistic that puts US unemployment at 8.3%. Joblessness has not stood below 8% since the month Obama took office. Again, the historical record is brutal on sitting presidents seeking re-election against such a bleak economic backdrop. The last one to pull it off was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.
Viewed like that, the fact that Obama is even in a statistical dead-heat with Romney nationally is quite an achievement. It has come thanks in part to an aerial bombardment of TV advertising by the Obama campaign in decisive states, consisting mainly of 30-second attacks on Romney, depicting him as a corporate vulture who won’t tell the truth about how much tax he pays. That such a heavy assault has only managed to result in stalemate illustrates the gravity of the president’s situation.
What’s more, a serious Romney counter-attack is on the way. Under the rules of campaign finance, the Republican only gained access to his full war-chest on Thursday night, when he became his party’s formal nominee. Unusually for a challenger, he is comprehensively out-fundraising Obama, pulling in more than $200m in June and July alone. Romney is backed too by a series of so-called Super Pacs (political action committees), officially unaffiliated bodies that are able to keep the source of their funds secret and who can spend unlimited amounts on TV commercials. Obama has some Super Pac allies of his own, but here too Romney has the advantage.
The coming phase of the campaign holds further bright possibilities for the Republican candidate. Yes, Obama will get his moment in the sun next week as Democrats gather for their convention in Charlotte. But any momentum could come to an abrupt halt on Friday, when the latest job statistics are published.
October brings three live TV debates between the two men, often landmark moments in a presidential contest. Of course these could go either way. If Romney stumbles so badly that he is deemed an implausible president, his bid will be over. But he is an experienced debater, battle-hardened by bruising primary campaigns this year and in 2008. And debates often help the challenger simply by putting him alongside the president, thereby granting him equal status.
It’s true that Romney is a stiff performer and cannot rival the charm and ease of Barack Obama. Likability usually matters a lot in US elections. But this could just be the year when it matters less. The case Republicans presented in Tampa was that the economy needs to be fixed and that Romney is the man to fix it. They point to a CV that shows Romney has succeeded in every task he has undertaken, whether as governor of Massachusetts or salvaging the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. So what if he can’t emote and looks permanently awkward? He’s a proven turnaround artist and, as his wife, Ann, said on Tuesday: “This man will not fail.”
Judged like this, Romney will not have to prove he’s likable so much as “acceptable”, say some of his senior allies, and that is a much lower bar. Thursday night’s testimonials from church members Romney had helped as a Mormon lay pastor – telling clearly genuine stories of Romney coming to the aid of families faced with tragedy, including sitting with a dying 14-year-old boy who had asked for Romney’s help drafting a will – suggest a way the candidate might clear that bar easily.
Of course, Obama retains big advantages. Many Americans still like him and think well of him. They believe he has tried his best, having been dealt a tough hand by his predecessor. They credit him with the removal of America’s number one enemy and the rescue of the country’s car industry. As the bumper sticker has it: “Bin Laden’s dead and GM’s alive.”
They still do not know Mitt Romney well and might yet be persuaded that he is a pampered plutocrat whose wife owns “a couple of Cadillacs” and who is out of touch, whose own policy reversals over the years – on abortion and the like – suggest a hollowness, a willingness to do or say anything to gain power.
Obama’s campaign team is probably the more skilled. The Romney crowd can still mess up: witness the debacle of Clint Eastwood’s Dada-ist performance in Tampa, talking to an empty chair. The control-freaks around Obama would have taken no such risk. And the Democrats retain key demographic advantages, favoured by Americans who are black, Hispanic, young or female. The electoral map is helpful too: in the states he has to win, the president is ahead. But that will not matter much if Romney pulls even a couple of percentage points ahead. Al Gore in 2000 apart, winners of the overall popular vote tend to become president.
Put simply, if you thought of Mitt Romney as a joke figure bound to lose in November and soon to be forgotten, think again. This election is knife-edge close – and, to state what for many around the world will be an unwelcome truth, that means either man could win.