Shortly after 11 p.m. (Eastern) on Election Night—with the polls still open only in Alaska—Mitt Romney aides were pleading with Fox News not to call Ohio for Barack Obama.That delicious detail, buried in a New York magazine article by Gabriel Sherman about Karl Rove’s on-air meltdown, tells you all you need to know about how spin is embedded in the psyches of major political operatives.
Not a single relevant vote was still up for grabs, but Romney insiders believed in their mind-clouding powers to bend reality to fit their preconceptions. The entire episode might be titled: “King Canute Calls Fox News.” That night, of course, Republicans accepted the indisputable nature of Obama’s victory and recognized that the only way they would ever experience a Romney administration would be on a conservative remake of West Wing.
That didn’t stop the spin, however, although its purpose dramatically changed. Judging from press accounts, leading members of Team Mitt devoted most of Wednesday to peddling don’t-blame-me explanations for Romney’s defeat. This is a venerable political-media tradition. It may well date back to the days when aides to losing candidates for the Roman Senate whispered to town criers “If only he had listened to me…” tales about the defeat of their boss.
A front-page story (“How the Race Slipped Away from Romney”) in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, by Sara Murphy and Patrick O’Connor, is a classic example of the genre. Citing few on-the-record sources and depending mostly on “top aides in both campaigns,” the Journal reconstruction pushes the ultimate no-fault explanation—Romney was outspent by Obama in the crucial period from mid-April until the GOP convention. The logic is that the Romney campaign, needing to replenish its campaign bank account after the primaries, neither had the resources nor the time to rebut pro-Obama attack ads demonizing Bain Capital.
This money-talks explanation contains obvious elements of truth. Exit polls from Ohio found that 56 percent of voters in the Making of the President State believed that Romney’s policies favor the rich. But reading the prisoner-of-their-sources Journal account, it is also easy to spot logical holes in the narrative.
Murphy and O’Connor acknowledge “the money crunch didn’t totally take the Romney camp by surprise.” But there is virtually no discussion in the article about why the blameless Romney aides did not develop an effective strategy to rebut the inevitable pain for Bain. The issue had been used against Romney since the 1994 Ted Kennedy Senate race, but the only response from Romney’s Boston headquarters was a series of Web videos from CEOs who said they had been helped by Bain. In similar fashion, Romney was supposedly too busy with fundraisers to create positive news over the summer, but the Journal story never tries to delve into which aides were responsible for the candidate’s disastrous and time-wasting July trip to Europe and Israel.
The same morning that the Journal opted for the cash-poor-rich-guy theme to explain Romney’s defeat (“Lack of money earlier this year stalled his campaign, and he never really recovered”), The New York Times, on its front-page, stressed how ineffective most campaign spending actually was. The Times story, by Nicholas Confessore and Jess Bidgood, points out that the Obama campaign was able to counteract Super Pac spending by “securing lower ad rates by paying for most of the advertising himself.” (For an explanation of why Super PACs had to pay higher ad rates and why, for the most part, the press missed that story, see this mid-September CJR column).
As we wait for detailed post-election analysis by political scientists and reflective reporters, a tentative case can be made that one set of Super PAC ads (maybe the only ones in the entire 2012 cycle) did do the job. The early anti-Bain TV commercials by the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA Action did help create a persuasive anti-Romney narrative. (Kudos to Time’s David Von Drehle for crafting a classic news-magazine sentence summarizing this argument: “Sharp guys wearing soft suits and perfect haircuts have been shutting your factories and offshoring your jobs for decades, and now get a load of Mitt Romney”).
But there is no convincing explanation in the Journal article or elsewhere in the press why pro-Romney Super PACs did not attempt to mount a defense of Bain Capital when the candidate himself was short on cash for TV commercials. The laws governing the natural universe did not dictate that GOP Super PACs could only run anti-Obama TV spots.