08/25/2012 12:37 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Here's To Shutting Up And Other Advice For The 'Era Of Backlash': The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Aug. 24

Let's take a moment to consider what the world was like on Aug 8, 2012. That morning, Missouri Representative Todd Akin woke up and greeted the day as the survivor of a grueling three-way battle to earn the GOP nomination for the Senate seat currently occupied by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. Akin had prevailed over Sarah Palin's favorite, Sarah Steelman, ending the sometime-Alaska Governor's hot streak as a 2012 endorser. He'd also bested Vi-Jon CEO John Brunner, who in his first foray into electoral politics, edged out Steelman for second place in the primary.

Hours after his primary win, there are a couple of things that Todd Akin -- or at the very least his advisors -- should have fully understood as political reality. First and most important: Akin was the candidate that McCaskill most wanted to face. The various head-to-head polls that were conducted in the lead up to the primary spoke to why that was -- of the three major contenders, Akin's head-to-head numbers were the closest. He led McCaskill 49-44 percent in the late July Mason-Dixon poll (which had a 5 percent margin of error), while Steelman led 49-41 percent, and Brunner -- who was thought to be the frontrunner -- led 52-41. McCaskill had done everything she could to get Akin the support he needed. Her ads, which touted Akin as being "too conservative," were basically an attempt to pull an "Inception" on Missouri conservatives.

But Akin should have understood that while Democrats were cheering his victory, his own primary competition had nevertheless demonstrated that there was more than enough anti-McCaskill sentiment to bring those that might have preferred Brunner or Steelman into his corner. Which leads to the next thing he should have understood -- what was keeping him close in those head-to-heads was probably something Todd Akin-esque, and not something Claire McCaskilly.

And for what quality is Todd Akin best known? Well, he's best known for the often daffy noises that pass, unedited, through his word-hole to the awaiting ears of constituents and reporters. Stuff like opposing an easing of student loan interest rates because the alternative was "stage three cancer of socialism." Stuff like his declarations that "liberals hate God" and "Medicare is unconstitutional" and "I'm against the minimum wage, whatever that is." (We are paraphrasing here.) Also, he advocated impeaching President Barack Obama because he was "a complete menace to our civilization."

Had we been the ones advising Todd Akin, then, our advice would have been pretty simple. And it definitely would not have been, "Now is the perfect time for you to give voice to your weird ideas about vaginas." Nor would it have been, "Now that you've gone and done that, for some reason, let's not have you making a whole bunch of defensive statements about it." And we definitely would have said, "Why are you constantly reminding everyone in the nation about this dumb thing you just said? Are you complete bonkers-sauce?"

No, no. Our advice, from the get-go, would have been more like, "Hey, Todd, do you have a home where you can go to? Because you should just go there for a while. Go there, sit yourself down in a comfortable chair, and give us a few weeks of you just shutting the hell up."

If there had been anyone with the minimal competence necessary to define this obvious "shut the hell up" strategy, none of what has happened this week would have happened. And Todd Akin would probably be slowly climbing in the polls.

Shutting The Hell Up -- it's not what most career politicians think to do when they start that last slog toward election day. And it certainly wasn't the strategy that propelled the GOP to major victories in the off-year election. Two years ago, vocal Tea Party discontent dominated the discourse and firebrands were encouraged to spit flames on the stump. But even back then, the rage strategy showed limitations, most notably in the GOP's failure to win a Delaware Senate seat, and oust Harry Reid from his perch -- a supposed panopticon of total Romney tax return awareness.

So in 2012, Shutting The Hell Up is sort of becoming the hot new underground trend in American politics. We say "underground" because it hasn't fully caught on yet. In Ohio, Franklin County GOP Chair Doug Preisse got quoted in the Columbus Dispatch saying, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban (read: African-American) voter turnout machine.” No, no, Preisse! You're not supposed to say that part out loud, in public.

But elsewhere, politicians are learning about how to make Shutting The Hell Up work for them. Take Virginia Senate candidate George Allen. Back in the day, you couldn't hope to find a more cocksure politician. The son of gregarious Washington Redskins coach of the same name, Allen loved nothing more than strutting around the state, running his mouth, and projecting his own trademarked version of gunslinger swagger. But then came the fateful day he said the word "Macaca," out loud, in front of a video camera. That torpedoed a career that many thought might bend in the direction of a White House run.

Now, he's learned the virtue of Shutting The Hell Up and has kept the lowest of profiles as he tries to wend his way back to the U.S. Senate. Bacon's Rebellion blogger Peter Galuszka profiled the new-look Allen back in June, and Allen comes off as a Shutting The Hell Up early-adopter, now dispensing his "trademark folksiness" in "carefully measured doses," and keeping himself to the task of "watching himself carefully." So far, so good. As Gaulszka relates, Allen prevailed against his Tea Party opponent Jamie Radtke, by mainly keeping mum:

During her well-run campaign, Radtke took shot after shot at Allen, proclaiming him to be just another budget-buster who voted relentlessly for spending for entitlements and special interests that has led to unsupportable deficits. “Both political parties have created this mess that we have to get out of,” Radtke told me at a Election Day stop at a nearly empty polling place in a Chesterfield church.

But Radtke’s criticism didn’t stick. Allen let her accusations roll off his back and quietly watched as Radtke was cut out of debates. His overriding goal clearly was to avoid giving the campaign of his Democratic opponent, former governor Timothy Kaine, a target as the real contest heats up.

And the Allen-Kaine race remains tight as a tick today. Shutting The Hell Up: it can work for you.

And at the national level, it's catching on. Take RNC Chair Reince Priebus, for example. No one expects Priebus to lead the party as some sort of oratorical leader. And that's good, because when Priebus does allow himself to get wound up, he comes off more operatically aggrieved than inspirational. That's okay, though. The reason he's the head of the RNC today is because the RNC wanted someone who wasn't a spectacular public doofus, like his predecessor Michael Steele. Here's how he described his tenure as RNC chair to our own Jon Ward: "I think I've been mission-driven, we've raised record amounts of money, and I've watched my mouth and stayed on message."

Priebus' candidate, Mitt Romney, hasn't always been successful at following in his chairman's footsteps, but the compelling evidence that Shutting The Hell Up is a technique he, too, should endeavor to employ is stacking up. Back during the primary season, it seemed pretty clear that Mitt Romney understood that the thing that annoyed people most about Mitt Romney was Mitt Romney. So, Mitt Romney worked hard to downplay his essential Mitt Romneyness. At the debates, faced with competitors striving to out-do each other in the field of criticizing Mitt Romney, Romney mostly sat back and let his opponents fight amongst themselves.

Once he'd notched the primary win, he didn't rush out and make a bunch of proclamations about policy specifics or plans. He kept those under wraps. It proved to be something of a risk -- Romney grew to be so good, in the late spring and early summer, at Shutting The Hell Up, that he allowed the Obama campaign to successfully tee off on his record and his biography. The early battle to "define Romney" went to Team Obama Re-Elect. Romney, however, seemed largely content with this -- after all, he had his super PACs on hand to do his talking for him. This did, of course, unnerve the conservative establishment pundit set, who expected Romney to fight back.

However, it's become clear that Romney's major setback wasn't the way he spent June letting the Democrats spend money attacking his record. Rather, it was the month of July, when Romney and his campaign deviated from the plan, and went on a mad tear of Saying Things Out Loud. In London, all Romney really had to do was walk around, like a bog-standard biped who is also handsome and has a firm handshake, and trust that at some point, Boris Johnson would get himself stuck on a zip-line, making Romney look statesmanlike by comparison. Instead, he blurted out some unnecessary and ungentlemanly criticism of the city's Olympic effort, and went on to brag about how he'd met with the head of MI-6, which, as any Brit will tell you, simply isn't done.

Then, back in the States, his spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, accidentally Said Stuff Out Loud while responding to a howlingly dishonest Priorities USA ad. In that instance, all she had to do was stick to the script and point out the ad's factual flaws -- as the campaign had already done. But Saul got a little too clever and accidentally spoke favorably of Romney's health care reform. Four years ago, that would have been smart. But in the age of Shutting The Hell Up, it was a disaster. By the end of the day, Ann Coulter -- repping the methed-out id of the GOP base -- was bellowing for Saul's head.

The lesson? Shut The Hell Up. And credit Romney for finding a way to reintroduce the tactic -- by selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate, he bought himself two weeks worth of news cycles in which his identity would be reduced to a tertiary fixture on the campaign trail. For two Sunday mornings in a row, now, all anyone has wanted to talk about was Paul Ryan. That's perfect. People treat Ryan as the most serious man in Christendom. He is one of the few people that actually has a license to talk out loud.

Obviously, Mitt Romney cannot remain a background figure for long. Next week, he'll give a speech at the Republican National Convention. In short order, he'll have to appear at a series of debates, at which he'll likely actually have to speak things aloud. But even in the stretch run, Shutting The Hell Up will probably remain an important offensive play.

Richard Rushfield, the co-editor of The Native Angeleno and author of "Don't Follow Me, I'm Lost," an absolutely delightful joy-buzzer of a memoir, has posited that the 2012 election is the first one to occur in what he calls "The Backlash Era," in which "the best thing" a Presidential candidate can do "is to try and make it so voters can barely remember his name when they go to pull the lever."

It is critical for politicians to recognize that public appearances, interviews touting yourself, rallies stoking your fires and the like will only engender resentments and create rallying points to gather your haters; that whatever enthusiasm your presence can drum up will only provoke the greater Backlash.

Rushfield points to this Aug. 17 report from the Associated Press, which suggests Romney might be fully aware of these new, Backlash Era conditions:

Obama's campaign is running [a Medicare-themed] ad in eight states: New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.

This comes while Romney is campaigning in Alabama, South Carolina, Massachusetts and New York. He plans visits next week to Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico.

To be sure, Obama attends numerous fundraisers of his own. And Romney has spent significant time at public campaign events in swing states, and he will do so many times again before Nov. 6.

But the amount of time Romney is devoting to private fundraisers in noncompetitive states is notable. Even when he is in swing states, he sometimes attends only a fundraiser, without mingling with non-donors or appearing before local TV cameras, as he did Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C.

Rushfield predicts that "the candidate we are thinking of the most in November will lose."

Romney is already messing this up.

FLORIDA SENIORS NOT BEHAVING AS CONFIDENT DEMS PREDICTED: Seems like only last week we were warning that those immediate predictions made by Democratic party consultants and campaign surrogates -- the ones who suggested Paul Ryan's selection as Romney's running-mate was definitely going to move Florida into Obama's electoral college column -- were not as likely to pan out as everyone was intimating.

Let's see how our warning is doing! Here's Greg Sargent, over at The Plum Line:

Today’s big New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac poll found some good news for Barack Obama: In Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida, voters think Obama would do a better job than Mitt Romney handling Medicare by margins of eight to 10 points. Blowback against Paul Ryan?

Well, I’ve got the breakdown of these numbers among seniors, and they are far less encouraging for Obama: In two out of the three states, voters over 65 prefer Romney on Medicare, and in the third, Obama leads, but by a smaller margin. The breakdown sent over by CBS:

*In Florida, 48 percent of seniors say Romney would do a better job on Medicare, versus 44 percent who say that about Obama (the Ryan pick was supposed to be particularly problematic in this state).

Now, Sargent goes on to note that there are peculiarities here, including the fact that "big majorities of seniors in all three states support leaving Medicare as it is." But the fact of the matter is that "in two of the three states -- ones that could decide the presidency -- seniors support Romney over Obama on the issue." Here's how Sargent bottom-lines it:

The Romney/Ryan plan would drive costs up for seniors; repealing Obamacare would take expanded benefits away from some of them; and Ryan’s changes would, over time, transform the core mission of the program that seniors say in overwhelming numbers they want left untouched. If that message isn’t getting through, that should concern the Obama campaign.

Let's say it again: It's swell that, in Ryan, the Democrats got the opportunity to stage the great debate and the argument on the key issues that they wanted. But you still have to argue that argument successfully! (In recent years, Democrats have had a strange tendency: once they believe they've stumbled onto a "winning issue," they sit back and trust fate to win them elections.)

A PERIODIC REMINDER THAT THE ECONOMY IS STILL TERRIBLE: Most economists agree: The recession, as economists tend to define such things, is over. One problem here, if you are Barack Obama, is that winning a majority of economists' votes actually doesn't get you any votes in the electoral college. A second problem is that the voters that can get you electoral college votes aren't experiencing the economy in the same way economists are. Here's Bloomberg's Jeff Kearns:

Real median annual household income fell to $53,508 from $54,916 during the 18-month recession from December 2007 to June 2009, according to the firm’s study of income data for the 36-month period ended in June 2012. Incomes kept falling during the 36-month period since then, dropping to $50,964 in June 2012.

And this is why "a majority of swing state voters don't think they're better off." They aren't.

THE FIRST CASUALTY OF THE SUPER PAC ERA IS THE MEDIA: Did you read that Politico story about just how much your local TV station loves super PACs? Because they do: "Political ads are expected to account for as much as 7 cents of every dollar broadcasters earn during the 2012 election, according to credit rating agency Moody’s, which is expecting record-breaking political ad spending this election -- up to 18 percent more compared to 2010."

The folks over at 1115.org raise a simple query: "How can we trust the media to accurately report on Citizen’s United if their continued existence is now being financially backed and guaranteed by the very same policy that they are claiming to be reporting impartially?"

You can't. And they won't.

DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS WEREN'T SO MEAN AND NASTY? If you answered yes, then you've really excelled at kidding yourself.

GOP WON'T LET RON PAUL SUPPORTERS TAMPA WITH THEIR CONVENTION: We've spent a considerable amount of time admiring the way Ron Paul's minions dedicated themselves this year to a thorough study of the primary process -- especially the importance of state party conventions, where delegates are minted. Well, it was fun while it lasted. Jon Ward has the skinny on the moves undertaken by the GOP today to limit the effectiveness of future insurgent campaigns. These changes will obviously not impact those candidates that curry favor with powerful political insiders and deep-pocketed donors, obviously! (This is bad news for future Rick Santorums as well.)

HOW DARE YOU SAY WE'RE WINNING THIS ELECTION! In case you missed it, here's Mark Blumenthal and Ariel Edwards-Levy on the really strange part of the Akin-McCaskill race. Both sides are working very hard to dispel the notion that the polls that predict their own candidate's success are in any way legitimate. Rasmussen came out with a poll, for example, that found McCaskill to have a double-digit lead, and the McCaskill camp freaked right the heck out. Why get mad? Well, they want to be up ten on Akin, for sure. But they don't want to be up ten on Akin while there's still a chance he'll drop out of the race. This is a rare opportunity to take in a campaign that doesn't want anyone to think that they're a runaway success.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: And now, it's time once again for your Speculatroners to end their week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and making the sort of snap judgments that one makes when one is about to get on a plane and fly into the teeth of a hurricane.

This week, we've seen the race continue to tighten. And we're now going into the period when each candidate will expect a "bounce" from their convention. Taken as a whole, it may not matter -- we wouldn't be surprised to see both convention bounces cancel each other out. In terms of swing states, there has been a lot of vacillation and an imbalance on the signal-to-noise ratio. But there's been more of a palpable bounce for Paul Ryan this week in Wisconsin. Things get really tricky for Obama if he cannot keep Wisconsin. At the same time, we're a little bit fascinated with Obama's oddball firewall in Ohio, where he's doing a better job holding off Romney than he is in other states. We'll honor that for the time being, but will be monitoring it closely.


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