Defying Expectations

As I did with my last post, I could write another five hundred words about how the polls showing Romney falling behind are based on a 2008 turnout model that won’t apply this time around. I could point you to better-sampled polls, like Rasmussen, that actually show Romney ahead. But something is happening here that can’t be so easily dismissed.

In politics, perception is reality. The drumbeat of “Romney can’t win; Romney is losing big; Romney’s campaign is over” is pounding steadily and furiously in all traditional media outlets, and that creates a perception that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy among the wishy-washy. The country is also being told that the murder and desecration of the bodies of four American diplomats, eruptions of violence in countries throughout the Muslim world, and a president who has to be corrected by his own State Department as to whether or not Egypt is an American ally are nowhere near as controversial or troubling as a critical statement by the Republican nominee.

Thus the Middle East is burning as the president picks up Nero’s fiddle, and we’re all supposed to think Mitt Romney’s the problem.

Some commentators aren’t fazed by this at all. Hugh Hewitt has taken the approach that the skewed coverage is only destroying the credibility of traditional media outlets and galvanizing Romney supporters to turn out in droves to express their righteous anger at the polls in November. I tend to agree with that in theory, but I’m concerned about the growing restlessness among the Republican rank and file. “We’re losing! Romney needs to hit back hard! Why is he letting them walk all over him? I knew we should have nominated a real conservative who would stand up for himself!”

First of all, Romney is hitting back hard. He hasn’t backed down an inch from his criticism of Obama’s feckless response. He’s assailing Obama on every front at every rally, and he’s being greeted with large crowds and huge enthusiasm. But Romney doesn’t control how the evening news decides to cover his campaign. It’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing he does will generate positive coverage. If you’re a conservative that’s going to judge the success of the campaign by what the pundits think of him, then you’re going to get very demoralized very quickly.

Second, look for the silver lining here. Joe Klein at Newsweek has savaged Romney over all this and claimed that this is a sure sign that Romney’s going to flop in the debates. That’s a very, very good thing for Romney, and here’s why.

The debates are going to be huge this time around. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was trailing Jimmy Carter by eight points in the Gallup poll when he faced him in their one and only debate. The conventional wisdom about Reagan maintained that he was a trigger-happy nuclear cowboy who would lead us to Armageddon. Then voters got to see him up close and personal in comparison to their failed president, and they liked what they saw. Remember that undecided voters aren’t really choosing between two candidates. They already know Obama, and they don’t like him. They’re still evaluating whether Romney is an acceptable alternative. It’s very likely that they’ll view him that way when they watch him maul Obama in the debates.

Yes, you heard me. Romney is poised to completely dismantle Obama when they come face-to-face.

Remember the Newt Gingrich boomlet? The rationale driving his turn behind the anybody-but-Romney wheel was that he would bring his A game to a debate with Barack Obama, and that Newt’s oratorical brilliance would leave the president sputtering and speechless in their rhetorical face-offs. This kind of thinking reached a fever pitch before the Florida primary, when Newt was fresh off his South Carolina victory and leading Romney in the polls by about eight points.

Then they debated. And, contrary to all expectations, Romney wiped the floor with the guy, which, more than anything else, paved the way to his nomination.

Expectations are the key in debates. Candidates aren’t really debating their opponents; they’re being measured against the standard of how well they’re expected to perform. If people think Mitt’s going to blow it, they’re going to be that much more surprised when he doesn’t.

Remember, Romney has been debating all year long with all the Republican yahoos. And he’s gotten better as he’s gone along. In contrast, the last credible debate opponent he had was Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. (Certainly the hapless John McCain doesn’t count.) He’s been treated with kid gloves ever since. He underestimates Romney, as do his media lapdogs.

If you’re a Romney supporter, you shouldn’t make that same mistake. Your guy is tougher than you think, and this race is still his to lose.

"He jumped the gun, Stallion! He jumped the gun!"
Dispatches from an Alternate Universe

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