By Josh Richman, Bay Area News Group
Super-rich, sucker-punched by a “September surprise” and still stuck courting a hard-to-please conservative base while trying to connect with everyone else.
That’s been the story of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in recent weeks, but it also was the story of the 2010 California gubernatorial campaign of Meg Whitman, whom Romney hired three decades ago at the Boston-based Bain & Co. consulting firm.
For Whitman’s campaign, the story ended with a crushing, 13-point defeat at the hands of Democrat Jerry Brown. That’s a fate Romney desperately wants to avoid as he heads into his first debate with President Barack Obama on Wednesday.
Awash in campaign cash — in Whitman’s case, a record-shattering $142 million of her own money — and their images molded by armies of consultants, both were cast by Democrats as aloof, out-of-touch rich people with hidden tax returns, offshore bank accounts and luxurious lifestyles, making it hard to convince middle-class and minority voters that they could ever understand the common American’s plight.
Then both were broadsided in September with stories that reinforced those perceptions in the minds of many voters, particularly independents. Former housekeeper Nicky Diaz came forward in September 2010 charging that Whitman, who became a billionaire as eBay’s CEO, had known she was an illegal immigrant and kept her on the payroll before callously dismissing her because Whitman feared the press and public would find out. In Romney’s case, a video surfaced of a May fundraiser in Florida at which he bad-mouthed “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what” because they’re dependent upon government and pay no income tax.
So now the question is: Is there enough time left for Romney to turn it around where Whitman couldn’t?
“None of this is likely to resolve itself in the next month and a half,” said Corey Cook, who directs the University of San Francisco’s McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good. “He’s become the worst thing you can become as a candidate: a caricature of yourself.”
Obama leads Romney by 4.3 percentage points in an average of seven national polls since mid-September. Other poll averages gathered by RealClearPolitics.comshow Obama ahead in every battleground state.
But Jonathan Wilcox, a longtime GOP communications consultant who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, scoffed at the notion that Romney will suffer Whitman’s fate.
“Meg Whitman never had a chance at winning, in my opinion, and this was compounded with a terribly unwieldy campaign,” he said.
That’s not the case with Romney, he maintained, and polls now showing his decline are unfairly weighted toward Democratic voters — a charge made by other Republicans.
“There is not a single measurable metric for all this gloom and doom” about Romney, Wilcox said. “Not fundraising, not crowd size, not volunteer organization, not mood on the ground. Meg Whitman had none of those things going for her.”
Yet some veteran GOP hands believe the damage has come too late for Romney to recover, as it did for Whitman.
Californians might know better than anyone how similar their campaigns’ evolutions have been.
Consider that both began their campaigns perceived as moderate captains of industry. But both were forced to tack sharply to the right during the primary election season on issues ranging from illegal immigration and taxes to beat out more conservative competitors — in Whitman’s case, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner; in Romney’s, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — to clinch their nominations.
Still, neither completely convinced their Republican bases of their conservative bona fides. So they had to spend much of their general-election campaigns simultaneously reassuring those bases and trying to woo independents.
Whitman, now Hewlett-Packard’s CEO, had said she wanted to run California “a little bit more like a business,” much as Romney has talked about applying private-sector know-how to public-sector problems.
But politics requires the ability to make a fundamental connection with voters, not just an ability to sell a product or make a profit, said campaign strategist Matt David, who managed Jon Huntsman’s GOP presidential primary campaign.
“Those are entirely different things,” he said.
David, a top aide to former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush in 2004 and John McCain in 2008, said people coming from a corporate boardroom atmosphere too often don’t realize you can’t use a business algorithm to get people to like, trust and identify with you.
Dan Schnur, a former GOP operative who now directs USC’s Unruh Institute of Politics, agreed that Whitman and Romney’s business resumes provide both opportunity and challenge. “They’ve been able to talk about their knowledge and understanding of economic and job creation issues. But ironically their success in that area has created a barrier between them and the voters they need to reach.”
The California Nurses Association had been doing its “Queen Meg” political theater long before Nicky Diaz was on the scene, just as Romney has spent a lot of time dodging jibes of elitism about his car elevator, his wife’s Olympic dressage horse and two Cadillacs — to say nothing of his offer to bet Texas Gov. Rick Perry $10,000.
Schnur said the Republican National Convention in Tampa last month marked the start of Romney’s attempt to connect viscerally with middle-class voters.
“Both his and his wife’s speeches spent a lot of time talking about their own lives and challenges in a way that voters hadn’t heard previously,” he said. “If he comes up short, a lot of people will be asking whether that effort should’ve begun earlier in the campaign.”
Whitman was late to that party, too, and her efforts were hamstrung after Diaz made national news with her allegations. Whitman had been tied with Brown in the polls in mid-July, and even led him in some polls in early September, but immediately saw her political stock plummet, particularly with Latino voters.
Romney’s hiring of a landscaping firm that relied on undocumented immigrant workers was old news by the time this campaign began. But his campaign reeled after the now-famous video made “47” the best known percentage in recent political history.
“Every candidate makes statements that they wish they hadn’t,” Schnur said. “The added challenge of this one is that it reinforces an impression of Romney that his opponents have been pushing for several months.”