Romney vs. Not-Romney

Today’s Talking Points Memo reports on a Campaign 2012 phenomenon that the Denizens have recently commented on: the persistent competition between Mitt Romney and “Not Romney.” Here’s the guts of Eric Kleefeld’s take on the poolling in key early primary and caucus states, which depict Romney’s stagnation amidst an ebb and flow of Not-Romneys:

As has been noted many times, the Republican contest has gone through a cycle of one candidate or another gaining a sudden, massive amount of support against Romney, only to collapse after a combination of blunders and media scrutiny — see Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. The big question, then, is whether any candidate will be able to put up a stable anti-Romney front, or if the competition are too flawed, and Romney can take it by default. (Newt Gingrich, you’re now up at bat.) And if Herman Cain should now drop out of the race — he suggested on Tuesday he was ‘reassessing’ things — that could mean a sudden turn to a much rougher road for Romney. The numbers suggest Gingrich would be much more the beneficiary of a Cain departure than Romney.

So what do we make of this situation?


The probable conclusion, according to Kleefeld?

For a take on the situation among right-wing activists, Erick Erickson puts it simply: “The race for the GOP nomination is well settled at this point. It is settled in ‘Not Romney’s’ favor. The reason the race is so volatile is that ‘Not Romney’ is not on the ballot making a Romney nomination not just possible, but probable.”

Probable? Compared to any other candidate at the moment, yes. But inevitable?

Our previous posts on the GOP nomination contest have considered this phenomenon not so much in terms of Romney’s inadequacy in the eyes of the conservative party base — although that is a key factor that cannot be ignored. But we must also consider the role that media framing has played in constructing a persistent narrative for this campaign that Romney has been unable to shake.

Consider, for instance, a great content analysis by Eric Ostermeier at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

If Republican primary voters are to be accused of still searching for the “anti-Romney,” the same can certainly be said of the broadcast media as they cover the various arcs of the presidential campaign.

For although the former Massachusetts governor has ranked consistently at or near the top of the national polls throughout his candidacy, on a week-to-week basis Romney usually lags behind one or more of his fellow 2012 White House hopefuls in terms of media coverage.

And this has been the case dating all the way back to June.

A Smart Politics week-by-week analysis of ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and NPR broadcast media transcripts finds that since late June, Mitt Romney has been mentioned in the most reports among the 2012 Republican candidates for just four of these 22 weeks.

Which is not to say Romney has been ignored.

In fact, the perennial GOP frontrunner has been mentioned in the most news reports overall during this five-month span at 3,355 – barely edging out Rick Perry (mentioned in 3,235 reports, even though he did not announce his candidacy until the seventh week under analysis).

However, Romney has been consistently overshadowed nearly every week by one of the “anti-Romney” candidates vying for co-frontrunner status.

The media theory of “agenda building” (explained well by Matthew C. Nisbet) helps us understand this pattern.

News organizations are profit-driven enterprises that are chiefly concerned with transforming complex events into appealing stories for their news consumers. Faced with financial, political, and time pressures, journalists routinize their daily work by relying on news values such as prominence, conflict, drama, proximity, timeliness, and objectivity [citation omitted]. Moreover, they rely heavily on storytelling themes and narrative to package complex events and issues and to make them appealing to specific audiences. In reporting the news, they follow a set of socially prescribed role expectations that are based on organizational rules, professionally derived standards of ethics and quality, and societal expectations relative to commonly held beliefs such as patriotism or religion [citation omitted].

So, consider the characters of “Mitt Romney” and “Not-Romney” that have been constructed in the media narrative of this campaign, which we have recently discussed in a post on the rise and inevitable fall of Herman Cain.

“Mitt Romney” is a tailor-made presidential candidate from central casting: seemingly ideal resume; family man with a clean personal background; a poised and manicured appearance from good shoes to perfectly presidential hair; a careful (perhaps overly careful and strategic) approach to public statements and debate performances. But he’s also a guy his party doesn’t want as President. His evolving political stances on core policy issues such as healthcare policy, abortion and gay rights have led the right-wing base to question his conservative bona fides, and everyone else to question his sincerity — is this a candidate who actually has principles, or is he a slave to political expedience? Bluntly, can he really be trusted? So, Romney is the “inevitable” candidate who can’t be inevitable… he doesn’t represent real change, there’s a suspicion that he’s just not sincere and trustworthy, and thus his party doesn’t like him. He’s “too perfect, too slick,” and he “tries too hard”… so that can’t be good. Indeed, this media character seems to have developed during the 2008 GOP primary campaign and has hung on with gritty determination — in large part because the news media loves a consistent, simple narrative that makes their jobs easier.

By contrast, the cast of “Not-Romneys” in the 2012 race has evolved from 2008′s slate of Mike Huckabee (the charismatic bass-playing Christian conservative endorsed by Chuck Norris), Rudy Giuliani (“America’s Mayor” and 9/11 hero), and Fred Thompson (the “he must be a great candidate, because he’s a TV and movie star” candidate). While each had their moments, all ultimately flamed out, unable to parlay their outsized charisma into viable long-term candidacies. They were great TV for a time, until folks started reluctantly admitting that there wasn’t any there there. But all of them served well to suck the oxygen out of any room Romney tried to work. In 2008, John McCain (the war hero, “straight talking maverick,” New Hampshire comeback kid candidate) seemed to prevail over Romney particularly because he was able to pair his “Not-Romney” ethos of trustworthiness based on principled values and seemingly epic war hero status with the gravitas of deep political experience and expertise. McCain wasn’t as good TV as he was in his 2000 “Straight Talk Express” run against George W. Bush (which drew media fascination but ultimately couldn’t sustain against superior organization, money, and a better televisual persona in Bush), but he was better TV than Romney, largely because he had a more compelling back story.

This year, while they all have their individual characters, Michele (“The Next Best Thing to Palin for Palin Fans”) Bachmann, Herman (“I’m a Ross Perot Redux Outsider, and I’m Black Like Obama, Too”) Cain, Rick (“Remember That Larger Than Life Don’t-Mess-With-Texas Governor You Voted For Last Time?”) Perry, and Newt (“The Intellectual That’s Not Boring Because He Says Outrageous Things”) Gingrich are drawn together by at least one common characteristic: Their televisual personae are not only charismatic, but also leveraged to convince voters that they provide “straight talk” based on principle rather than calculation.

Such a persona is certainly attracted to partisan conservatives, who see a tight connection between ideological philosophy, policy positions and approaches to public discourse and governance as vital to their choice. And such a persona is, of course, great fodder for TV news media looking for an outsized, dramatic character to counterpoint against the shrewder, slicker Romney for their campaign combat narrative frame. Thus, on some level it only makes sense that the party has sought such characters as an alternative to the candidate they secretly recognize, to their distaste, is likely all but inevitable. They may well fear a replay of 1996 and 2008, when “inevitable” candidates with arguably questionable conservative credentials (Bob Dole, John McCain) failed to rally the base and capture a national enthusiasm, leading to defeat by a more charismatic Democrat.

The problem seems to be, though, that these choices seem to privilege ideological purity and televisual charisma over prudential judgment and political realism. What has resulted, then, is a predictable pattern of catching fire and then flaming out, as the “Not-Romney” reveals their weaknesses and liabilities through, ironically, their tendency to shoot from the lip rather than measure their statements and actions.

A likely result? Romney is nominated as many Republicans wrinkle their nose, his candidacy never catches fire with the base — depressing their voter turnout — and he ultimately loses to Obama in a close contest against President Obama. The vote will be close due to problems Obama faces… but that’s a post for a different day. But Romney wins the nomination and loses the general election largely because of the insistence of the party faithful on someone who is both ideologically ideal and great TV — and without considering other important variables carefully, that’s a risky combo for political viability.

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