“Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America” (Viking), by Dan Balz
Heading into the 2012 presidential election season, President Barack Obama had been weakened by GOP resistance to raising the debt ceiling, the economy was struggling and Democratic focus groups found voters deeply dispirited about the direction of the country.
So how did the Republicans let this election slip away? That’s at the heart of Dan Balz’s excellent book on the last election, “Collision 2012.”
The book covers the oft-reported skill of the Obama campaign’s use of online campaigning, fundraising and voter targeting, and reaffirms the Democrats’ growing demographic advantage among Hispanics, the contrast of the conventions and the debates.
But a major factor was the Republican struggle to find a general election candidate who could win over swing voters while appealing to an increasingly conservative GOP base.
The Republicans are maneuvering now in the early stages for 2016 and struggling with attempts to remake the party’s image, which makes Balz’s account of the GOP contest in 2012 very timely.
Mitt Romney entered the race with “a glittering record of success, a resume that was enviable in both the public and private sectors, and a huge personal fortune. What he lacked was a clear political identity,” Balz writes.
Romney’s awareness of his vulnerabilities surfaced during a Christmas vacation in December 2010. Balz tells how Romney’s son Tagg recalled his dad’s hesitance. It might be difficult for a moderate from Massachusetts who happened to be Mormon to win GOP primaries. And there was concern that Romney’s support for a Massachusetts health care plan could cost him conservative support.
“Even up until the day he made the announcement, he was looking for excuses to get out of it,” Tagg Romney said. But Romney, encouraged by wife Ann and Tagg, was convinced there wasn’t a stronger Republican candidate likely to run.
Potential strong GOP rivals bowed out, clearing the way for Romney, and a series of conservative Republicans took their turns as his chief rival. Their success highlighted Romney’s difficulty winning a loyal conservative following.
“The field of candidates included no one who seemed to have the attributes that could provide a center of gravity to a party still searching for someone to define its post-2010 character,” Balz writes.
While seeking to fend off conservative challengers, Romney had to take positions or make statements, especially on immigration, that would haunt him in the general election campaign. The Obama campaign skillfully took advantage of those vulnerabilities.
Romney was hurt by his immigration stances and his biography should have been an asset in troubled economic times, but his campaign had done little “to inoculate him” from coming attacks. Romney’s claim at a conservative gathering that he was “a severely conservative governor” wasn’t a hit with activists, who thought he was trying to impersonate a conservative, Balz writes.
The GOP nomination battle had been wildly unpredictable and it had highlighted that the party’s base was pulling it to the right and out of the mainstream, Balz says.
Romney said after the election that it wasn’t for him to say if the election was a sign of problems for the party. He maintains the party principles are right for the country, though he acknowledged that it had to more effectively woo Hispanic voters.
The Republican Party announced after the election that it was clear the party had to actively appeal to minorities, especially Hispanics. And it would have to pursue positions with more appeal to a broad range of voters. But the conservative base of the GOP has made it difficult for party leaders to reset the party’s image.
In the run-up to the next presidential election, candidates are already lining up. The challenge for the GOP is to find someone who can provide “a center of gravity” and broad appeal, and survive the intense pressure of a primary campaign with a good chance to win the White House.
Will Lester, a political writer for The Associated Press for a dozen years, is an editor in the AP’s Washington bureau.