The remarks that follow from the panelists at the International Association of Political Consultants conference in New York affirm a key takeaway from the presidential campaign that I called out in August and acknowledged earlier this week: Governor Romney failed to define himself and allowed President Obama to define him in a negative way.
This was the definitive mistake of the general election cycle (with Romney's immigration stance being his most disastrous noteworthy primary cycle misstep). By not answering the Obama campaign's Bain Capital attacks, Romney allowed what was his primary strength to be turned into his primary liability.
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager for the recently completed campaign, said at the conference that the Obama campaign's key strategic decision was to "go after Romney," beginning in May and "spend the money [then] even though that risked being outspent two-to-one in October." Obama's camp was surprised that the Romney campaign did not respond. Messina observed that the Obama campaign's risky bet paid off because the Romney campaign's lack of response took Romney out of contention before October arrived.
Bill Burton of Priorities USA, the Super PAC that supported Obama, said at the conference that the organization's role was to "do damage that needed to be done." Burton observed that the "single biggest strategic mistake was the Romney campaign not answering [the Obama campaign's] attacks" and that, as a result, "all the attacks stuck."
Brian Jones, a senior strategist for the Romney campaign, told the conferees that as the conventions approached, the Romney campaign determined it "needed to do more to talk about Mitt as a person"--what campaign staffers called the "more Mitt" strategy. Jones observed that the campaign's effort at that late stage was "muted by the Democratic Convention." Jones admitted that one of the key mistakes of the campaign was that "it took too long to get into the 'more Mitt' phase."
David Morey, vice chair of the Core Strategy Group and advisor to 12 winning global presidential races--including Obama's--imparted the following cautions:
• "You cannot leave your brand on cruise control."
• "Those who go on offense first, win."
• "Silence is death."
Doug Schoen, a political consultant whose clients include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Indiana Governor Evan Bayh, said "define yourself, or someone else will do it for you."
But perhaps no one summed up the situation more completely than my taxi driver yesterday morning. He thought that "Romney was a smart man," but he "wasn't sure [Romney] had a heart." It is a common mistake for many candidates to focus nearly exclusively on issues and not enough on making sure they connect personally with voters at the level of their daily lives.
Let the 2012 campaign be a stark reminder that people do not care what you know until they know you care.
Hon. Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).