Ideas Don’t Run for President

Published November 9, 2012

Let me tell you about SAGNOF. It’s a fantasy baseball term – it means Saves (or Steals) Ain’t Got No Face. In other words: it’s worth picking up an anonymous player off the scrap heap just by virtue of being a team’s closer, or being a steal-happy utility player. It doesn’t matter whether you know his name or record or have ever even seen him play: these stats are worth enough in the game that the faceless are the difference between victory and defeat.

For some context, consider this: It’s almost two decades after the 1992 campaign documentary The War Room, and Bill Clinton is reflecting on his performance in the 1992 primary, talking about having hundreds of people show up at a New Hampshire event where a good showing was 50 people when he was fifth in the polls, fueled by a detailed policy plan he’d put out about his agenda if elected – something only he and Tsongas had done – combined with a narrative about the needs of the middle class that cut across traditional faultlines to reach Reagan Democrats: “When people hire you to be president, like hiring you for any other job, they want to know what you’re going to do.” Dan McLaughlin is fond of saying that ideas don’t run for president, people do. You have to have a face. Mitt Romney’s face, for all intents and purposes, was defined by President Obama’s team.  

Romney’s 2012 campaign, upon reflection, was as close to a SAGNOF approach to politics as we’ve seen in the modern era. The presumption that the bad economy would be enough to drive people to the polls for anyone who stood up in opposition to President Obama infused the entire campaign effort. The first time many people learned about Romney’s personality was in videos and speeches from people who knew him in Massachusetts, kept out of the prime time convention broadcast, which were genuinely moving. Throughout the last month of the campaign, like clockwork, every time reporters began to live-tweet a Romney event, one of them would note that the campaign was playing “that video” – a well-crafted exposition on Romney’s life which was probably the best thing the campaign produced – which was never seen by the overwhelming majority of voters: instead,they saw Clint Eastwood. Instead, Obama’s negative ads worked.  The big bet that the Obama campaign made in the summer to use their atomic bomb on destroying Romney in the Midwest seems less risky in retrospect given the lack of interest on the part of the Romney campaign in pushing back and his lack of funds at the time. The result? Eighteen percent.  

In practice, SAGNOF is a too-clever-by-half strategy that typically backfires – by being bland and playing it safe, you lose control of the narrative of a campaign, and cede to your opponent the opportunity to define you and your intentions. We saw this with Romney’s policy team again and again, but we also saw it – more importantly in my view – in the arena of communications. The assumption that white voters in the worst parts of the economically devastated Midwest would come out to vote despite Obama’s negative ads proved completely false.  

The increased share of the minority vote as a percent of the total vote is not the result of a large increase in minorities in the numerator, it is a function of many fewer whites in the denominator … Where things drop off are in the rural portions of Ohio, especially in the southeast. These represent areas still hard-hit by the recession. Unemployment is high there, and the area has seen almost no growth in recent years. My sense is these voters were unhappy with Obama. But his negative ad campaign relentlessly emphasizing Romney’s wealth and tenure at Bain Capital may have turned them off to the Republican nominee as well. The Romney campaign exacerbated this through the challenger’s failure to articulate a clear, positive agenda to address these voters’ fears, and self-inflicted wounds like the “47 percent” gaffe. Given a choice between two unpalatable options, these voters simply stayed home.

So the Ohio voters Romney struggled with stayed home. And Ross Douthat’s suspicion back in August proved correct. While Paul Ryan may not have been right on target in wanting to campaign in the inner cities, it’s unfortunate his desire to talk about poverty and focus on reaching the economically depressed was reportedly ignored by Team Romney.  

Romney’s decision to go far right in the primary in his attacks against Rick Perry cost him dearly. We may be looking at the worst historical performance for any modern Republican among Hispanics – in Florida, Obama crushed Romney among Puerto Ricans and even beat him among Cubans.  

An exit poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, a Democratic polling firm that has worked for Obama, found a slightly different but still significant breakdown of Cuban-American support, with 48 percent for Obama and 52 percent for Romney. “It’s a historic figure, an unprecedented figure, a real eye-popping figure when it comes to support for a Democratic candidate,” said pollster Fernand Amandi.  Obama got 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 2008 … The exit polling in the Puerto-Rican community should concern Republicans even more. Bendixen & Amandi pegged Obama’s support at 83 percent, an astonishing number considering that Puerto Ricans have backed Republican candidates in the past.

Romney’s policy position and his multiple gaffes on priority issues for Hispanics, combined with a severe lack of outreach to these ethnic communities, are not the mark of a well-run campaign, one that sets up significant problems for Republicans as the nation grows more diverse. Then again, considering the operational failure of Project ORCA, the question may be: what, other than the debates, was Romney good at?