Mitt Romney and his team need to get back to the drawing board, period. With the primary season all but finished, as Romney moves inexorably closer to the magic number of 1,144, it is time for him and the GOP to begin defining a compelling general election narrative that presents a distinct alternative to Obama's presidency. In order to achieve this, Romney will not only need to place greater emphasis on a bold policy agenda, but he also needs to communicate a visionary, positive message (not one of negativity directed at President Obama).
To date, Romney has been able to successfully navigate the primary process by focusing on invigorating a base seething with discontent for the president. A base that is looking for a candidate that exhibits the same anger that they feel. Romney has satisfied their cravings for red meat throughout the primary process, often directing entire speeches towards the president's "failures" and "lack of leadership." This strategy seems to be something he plans to continue into the general. At a recent rally in Pennsylvania, with its upcoming April 24 primary, Romney energetically shouted to the crowd, "We just got to get him out of office. He just doesn't understand what's happening to the country," referring to President Obama. In fact, the degree of his negative rhetoric can be verified by an all-but-scientific Google search. For instance, yesterday I found that when you type "Romney" as a search term on Google, one of the first auto-complete suggestions is "Romney attacking President." Could a consistently negative tone be part of his messaging problem?
Beyond messaging, the other key area in which he can differentiate himself vis-à-vis Obama is through a bold policy agenda. He's been successful in doing this at times (his debt and spending plan is quite strong), but generally he has lacked conviction. In what most would consider to be the defining issue of the election, a candidate's plan for the economy, Romney put forward a plan described by the Wall Street Journal as "surprisingly timid and tactical considering our economic predicament." Without boldness in policy, it will be difficult for Romney to demonstrate to the American people how a change in administration will improve the country's future.
The urgency and necessity for a change in messaging and the need for additional bold ideas can be seen in recent polls, like the April 4 Gallup Poll, in which Romney's support among Independent voters in key swing states has reached dangerously low levels (he lags 48 percent to 39 percent in 12 key swing states against Obama). Re-establishing support among this critical constituency, and frankly among the general electorate, will require more than proving his "conservative credentials" and constantly attacking the president. Romney needs to focus on painting a positive picture of the future -- much like President Obama did four years ago with his message of hope and change, and even more relevant, something reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's inspirational appeal following Jimmy Carter's first term (although not the 1980 campaign, no one can forget Reagan's "It's Morning Again in America" political ads from his 1984 re-elect).
As it relates to bold ideas, there are a few remaining defining issues in the campaign -- most notably among others, health care (after a likely Supreme Court ruling against the current legislation), education, and energy. While the president can speak to meaningful proposals (i.e., PPACA, education reform, and an "All of the Above" energy approach), Romney has not put forth a specific policy proposal on any of these topics. Just take a look at Romney's energy plan from his website where he says something, without really saying anything at all.
Success for Romney will be an uphill battle as long as the economy shows even incremental signs of improvement. However, he has an opportunity to redefine himself for Americans (while actually not flip-flopping) in the coming weeks. If he and his advisers have their drawing boards out, they need to strongly consider a new narrative beyond the empty negativity against the president. A better approach would be one that draws in all types of voters, and this will only be accomplished through bold, visionary ideas and a positive outlook for the future.