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Is Sleep Deprivation the Reason the Romney Campaign Is Blowing It?

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We may be a politically polarized country, but there seems to be a growing consensus on at least one thing: Mitt Romney's campaign is blowing it. Even before the leaked tape, the sentiment was so widespread that the pre-mortems and jockeying to avert blame have already begun, led by a long front-page piece in Politico titled "Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled."

Note the use of the past tense. The day before, in The Hill, it was, "Republican lawmakers say Romney campaign needs to change course." And then there was Saturday Night Live, which opened its new season with a sketch in which President Obama acknowledges that "things aren't great, the economy's in the tank" and that "the job market is horrible" but says he's not worried because his campaign has a "secret weapon" to guarantee a win: cut to Mitt Romney.

When the satirists think that the idea that your campaign is tanking has been sufficiently internalized to use it as a premise, you know you're in trouble. The question is: why? As the AP's Kasie Hunt wrote in a piece about the dissatisfaction at this past weekend's Value Voters Summit, "Republican activists are incredulous: Why can't Republican Mitt Romney seem to break open a tight race with President Barack Obama given the nation's sluggish economy and conservative enthusiasm to beat the Democrat?"

Why, indeed? As SNL's President Obama said, things aren't great. Unemployment is still above 8 percent. There are still more than 20 million people unemployed or under-employed. And, yet, in four major polls, the real President Obama has moved into a tie with Romney over the question of who would handle the economy better. And the New York Times' Nate Silver has Obama at a 73 percent chance of winning.

So what's the reason for Romney's problems? His campaign includes plenty of seasoned professionals. And the answer certainly isn't the lack of money. Between the campaign, the RNC, and outside super PACs, Romney supporters have raised more than half a billion dollars. Some conservatives are already grumbling about "media bias," but that's not the answer, either -- whatever the personal leanings of those in the mainstream media, what they love above all else is changing the narrative. The media would love nothing more than to flip the narrative and have a week or two of "Obama has been ahead, but watch out -- here comes Romney!" stories. Who knows, it might still happen, but the Romney campaign isn't giving them a lot to work with.

So if it's not about external conditions or money or talent, then it must be about poor decision-making. And I have my own theory about that. But first, let's look at the bad decisions the campaign has been making.

On economic policy, they decided to try to run a campaign about the troubled economy without ever actually filling in the blanks on what they would do to fix it. Broadly speaking, Romney's economic plan is that he's going to cut taxes, especially on the rich, but still balance the budget. How? By closing loopholes and eliminating deductions. Which ones? They won't say. But they do cite studies saying it would work. Here was how Romney answered when pressed by George Stephanopoulos about one of those studies:

STEPHANOPOULOS: ... one of the studies you cite by Martin Feldstein at Harvard shows that to make your math work, it could work, if you eliminate the home mortgage, charity, and state and local tax deductions for everyone earning over $100,000. Is that what you propose?

ROMNEY: No, that's not what I propose. And, of course, part of my plan is to stimulate economic growth. The biggest source of getting the country to a balanced budget is not by raising taxes or by cutting spending. It's by encouraging the growth of the economy. So my tax plan is to encourage investment in growth in America, more jobs, that means more people paying taxes.

So his plan is to... "encourage investment?" It's certainly not uncommon for politicians to refuse to actually answer a question, but they're usually far more skilled at hiding the fact that they're not answering. It's like Team Romney is hardly even trying. Which is why even many conservatives have called on the campaign to get more specific. For instance, here was George Will on This Week:

There is uncertainty surrounding the Romney/Ryan tax cut plan, because they have not specified the deductions that will be closed. And we know where the big money is: mortgage interest deductions, charitable deductions, taxing that's compensation, which it is, employee-provided health insurance, and state and local taxes. All of those, you either hit only the rich, in which case you don't get much money, or you hit the middle class.

The Washington Post editorial board called it "counting on magic." And the Wall Street Journal, reacting to Romney's claim that he would replace Obamacare with his "own plan" but without specifying what that plan would entail, wrote, "Mr. Romney's pre-existing political calculation seems to be that he can win the election without having to explain the economic moment or even his own policies."

On foreign policy, the Romney campaign has largely outsourced its ideas to those responsible for one of the worst foreign policy disasters in U.S. history, the Iraq War. "Of Romney's forty identified foreign policy advisors, more than 70 percent worked for Bush," wrote Ari Berman. "Many hail from the neoconservative wing of the party, were enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War and are proponents of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran."

It's the sort of thinking that led to the campaign's disastrous decision to mount an over-the-top assault on President Obama in the middle of last week's deadly attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. The move was denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike as "craven," "ham-handed," "irresponsible," a "bungle," an "utter disaster," and "not presidential."

And when it came to his running mate, Romney picked someone known for being bold and provocative and then immediately muzzled him.

So what is behind all these bad decisions? Here's my theory: not enough sleep. And I have evidence (at least one piece)! While I was at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, a well-sourced journalist told me that senior Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom sleeps only three or four hours with his devices beside him, then wakes and checks his email, sends out replies, and then gets another hour of sleep. Or not. If Fehrnstrom's habits are at all indicative of the Romney campaign operation at large, then voila -- mystery solved!

Fehrnstrom, you might recall, was the Romney advisor who in March said that it would be easy for the campaign to switch gears from the primary battle because they would just "hit a reset button... almost like an Etch-A-Sketch." Why would a senior campaign member say something like that? Maybe because instead of hitting the reset button he needs to hit the off buttons on his phones and computers and get some more restorative sleep, leading to more clarity and better judgment.

Just last week, a study was published by researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute which showed that the light from computer screens interfered with the body's melatonin production, which helps govern our internal body clock and regulates our sleep cycle.

And, as I've pointed out before, sleep plays a vital role in decision-making. According to the Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine, lack of sleep was a "significant factor" or played a "critical role" in the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the wrecking of the Exxon Valdez, and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

"Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions," Harvard's sleep doctors say. "The combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance."

So, adding up the clues, it seems the culprit in the killing of Romney's chances just might be mind-numbing sleep deprivation among senior campaign advisors.

Am I saying he would be beating Obama if his staffers just got more sleep? No, but at this point it can't hurt. Half a billion dollars is great, but "higher-level cognitive functions" and "mental performance" are even greater.

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