Mitt and the threat of abandonment

Romney might face the same indignity -- abandonment -- as the last Republican to challenge an incumbent, Bob Dole

Published September 24, 2012 11:41AM (EDT)

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” David Brooks and Joe Scarborough took turns criticizing Mitt Romney’s messaging and strategy. Bay Buchanan, who has emerged as one of the Romney team’s most public faces, responded by insisting that her campaign is well-positioned to win:

We are in a dead heat.  Nationally, we have two polls showing a dead heat, a tie.  And the momentum is ours.  You see that the president’s numbers have come down.  Mitt Romney’s numbers are coming up.

It’s hardly novel for a campaign to play dumb in the face of discouraging news about its prospects for victory. But as the frustration and panic of conservative opinion leaders grows, the Romney campaign has an extra incentive to try to look like a winner. Over the next few weeks, Republican campaign committees, outside money groups, fundraisers and down-ballot candidates will make bottom-line judgments about Romney’s standing that will affect how they allocate their money and how they treat Romney in their messaging.

The risks for Romney are twofold. One is the simple appearance problem. It’s one thing for the other party to claim that a presidential candidate is flailing and running a poor campaign; that’s standard fare. It’s different, and more problematic, when the media and political world join in this conclusion – something that Romney has been dealing with for the past few weeks. And it’s even worse when the candidate’s own party joins the chorus, as is also the case for Romney now.

Then there’s the issue of what Republicans will do if they conclude that Romney is doomed. Maggie Haberman and Alex Burns get at this in a story that ran Sunday about Republican super PACs – and Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS in particular -- that would like to see Romney elected but that are also invested in winning back the Senate and maintaining control of the House. It’s not unimaginable that these down-ballot races will ultimately look like more appealing – and urgent – targets for these outside groups. Haberman and Burns emphasize that none of them are giving up on Romney yet, but that a moment of reckoning could be on the horizon:

[I]t's a question that will hang out there as long as Romney seems to be struggling. And there is a limited universe of super PAC donors, and operatives for smaller outside groups  focused on narrower, state-based targets - some of whom have been openly critical of Romney - also see an opportunity to raise more money for their own races and groups.

The calculation for outside groups involves more than just determining whether investing in Romney amounts to throwing good money after bad. There’s also the negative effect that a Romney loss would have on Senate and House races.

Right now, the GOP’s prospects for winning back the Senate are fair – a sharp downgrade from where things were at the start of the year -- and the party remains a strong favorite to hold the House. But the worse shape that Romney is in nationally (and in key battlegrounds states and districts), the more help Republican Senate and House candidates in these areas will need to overcome a poor top-of-the-ticket performance. For a group like Crossroads, directing money toward, say, the Tommy Thompson/Tammy Baldwin Senate race in Wisconsin could in the closing weeks of the campaign look like a much wiser investment than another round of ads bashing Obama.

We’ve seen party-aligned groups and down-ballot candidates give up on a White House candidate before. It’s what happened the last time a Democratic president sought reelection. Back then, Bill Clinton’s Republican challenger, Bob Dole, faced a persistent double-digit gap for the entire campaign. By the middle of October, after he failed to gain any momentum from the two debates, national Republicans essentially cast Dole aside. They were fighting to retain control of the House and Senate, and in the ’96 home stretch they refocused their message on asking voters not to give Clinton a “blank check” in his second term by keeping Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill.

What’s curious about the Republican panic we’re now witnessing is that Romney really isn’t in that bad shape politically, at least by recent historical standards. Yes, he’s losing right now and he has been pretty much all year, but the average gap in the Real Clear Politics polling average is just under 4 points. Again, by comparison, Dole was losing by between 15 and 20 points at this same point in ’96, and even John Kerry – who faced loud griping from his own party in September 2004 – trailed by about twice as much as Romney currently does. And yet Republican pessimism is soaring.

Why is this? My guess is that it’s a combination of a genuine misreading of the structural factors shaping this race (basically: the economy is actually growing just enough for the race to be close, or for Obama to be a slight favorite – but because unemployment is so stubbornly high, Republicans, and many non-Republicans, assume the race should be theirs to lose) and a recognition that the electorate’s growing partisan polarization means there are fewer true swing voters than ever – and that a 3-point spread today might be the equivalent of, say, a 6-point gap in the past.

Whatever the reason, if GOP campaign committees, groups like Crossroads, and other Republican candidates give in to this pessimism, it will be a costly headache for Romney.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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