11/07/2012 09:47 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Nice Guys Finish Last: Deconstructing the Romney Loss

About 56,870,551 people think Mitt Romney is a nice guy. And therein was the problem for the GOP standard-bearer.

After the first of three presidential debates Romney saw his momentum and poll numbers surge. He gave a decisive prosecutorial performance against a nodding-off President Obama while concurrently coming off as plausibly presidential and most importantly, non-threatening in that Barry Goldwater-esque kind of way that the Obama campaign had tried to paint him as. This was especially efficacious with female voters and enabled Romney to close the gender gap.

Going into the second and third debates and in a strategy for the last few weeks of the campaign, Romney decided to position himself as a becalmed, confident and smiling front-runner who could afford to pivot his campaign's message from the aggressive (and effective) doom and gloom prevalent this summer and September into a kind of Reagan "Morning in America" sunny days approach. So concerned was Romney with keeping his lead in the polls and not potentially alienating women that he squandered the opportunity to hammer in the nail all the way through and seal Obama's electoral coffin. It is said that "nice guys finish last."

About 40 years ago Alice Cooper had a big hit called "No More Mr. Nice Guy" off the album Billion Dollar Babies in which the repeated refrain is "No more Mister Nice Guy,
No more Mister Clean." In the past two to three weeks of the presidential race, Romney was that earnest, squeaky clean-cut looking Mormon missionary in starched white shirt and tie trying to get you to read that pamphlet and maybe come down to the Temple and check it out. But it was the first debate Romney that gained him traction and he didn't keep it up.

Inexplicably, after debate number two Romney totally dropped the Benghazi-gate issue. He talked about jobs, jobs, jobs while Labor Department reports were showing modest employment gains. Instead of talking about bringing prosperity and putting bigger flat screens on everyone's walls ("a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage") he was running on about the greatness of America and its people and talking about "real change" when folks were probably skittish about making change. People were looking for constancy and prosperity; they didn't want to hear about all this "change," which is why the Obama campaign stayed far away from the "c" word.

Meanwhile the president had edge, especially after Hurricane Sandy. If the Lehmann meltdown was John McCain's Waterloo, Sandy was Romney's. It afforded the incumbent the opportunity to display the full array of incumbent powers and prerogatives. In a crisis of that magnitude, even GOP bulldog Chris Christie blubbered and slobbered all over the president. Obama got to helicopter in and out in his presidential bomber jacket and dispense FEMA largesse. The president remained clad in windbreakers through the end of the campaign and on the attack against Romney, while the former Massachusetts governor was running around smiling in that shirt and tie. In a world where hardly anyone wears a tie to work anymore, most people didn't necessarily equate the cravat with competence.

In fairness to Mr. Romney, Hurricane Sandy acted as a cold shower and not only to his campaign. For about a week (and a critical final stretch one at that) it froze a whole lot of congressional and local races so that a "pause button" held back challengers across the spectrum and benefited incumbents of all stripes. This had the effect of preserving the GOP's hold on the House of Representatives and the Democrats' on the Senate. If there is a message from this election it is that voters craved constancy in the storm, not change.

But this was no crushing defeat for Romney or overwhelming mandate for Mr. Obama. The President only prevailed by about 2.6 million votes, no runaway for sure. Much has been made of Mr. Romney gap with Hispanics and that is a fact. The GOP needs to find a way to speak to Latinos nationally just as they do successfully in places like Texas, Florida and New Mexico locally.

The two other areas where Mr. Romney and the GOP came up lacking were that of health care and personal status. On health care, all the constant talk about repealing Obamacare offered little in the way of substance to people about what the alternative would be. Romney had no easily understandable "Plan B" for people to choose. Everyone needs health insurance and pretending otherwise is like sticking one's head into the ground. Obamacare may be a frightening multi-headed hydra but even Godzilla becomes a cuddly presence in the absence of an attractive alterative.

On personal status, despite Romney's relative moderate stance on abortion (as compared to other red state Republicans) this and gay rights are toxic to a lot of independents and swing voters. For the GOP to build truly large majorities nationally and make inroads in the Northeast and West Coast they've got to get out of the moralizing business and declare that they are disinterested in what folks do in their bedrooms and their private lives. As long as the Democrats can keep unsheathing the personal status Sword of Damocles, it will keep stabbing the Republicans lethally in heavily populated regions of the country. The next GOP nominee will need to defend the separation of church and state and promote individual freedom across the board and then pivot to economic, defense and foreign policy issues to build a winning coalition of voters and attract more independents to register as Republicans.