Hurricane Sandy just might prove to be the straw that broke the camel's back of the Mitt Romney campaign. Momentum definitely swung in the president's favor this week, as can be expected. Americans typically rally around their leader at times of uncertainty and shared grief, whether they be warfare or natural disasters.
Romney can't help that, but he can help looking foolish and self-absorbed by trying to turn it into a photo-op. Granted, it's a tough position to be in a week before the big day. Your opponent is in a position to capitalize just by doing their job, which so long as they're doing it right, comes off as one long and free campaign commercial. Clearly, it would be distasteful for Romney to campaign during the disaster, but he can't really sit on his hands either.
As one political strategist suggested, Romney could have turned his campaign headquarters into a Red Cross relief call center and had all of the volunteers who are normally dialing for campaign dollars, instead calling donors to ask them to send money for Hurricane Sandy relief, including Romney himself. In politics, that's what's known as good optics. Fox would have ran it on a constant loop for two days.
Instead, the Romney campaign decided it would make for better photography if they did a supply drive. That way, Mitt could show up somewhere in the all-important state of Ohio while people came up and handed him six packs of Gatorade and boxes of Snack Ramen for the victims of the storm. Good photos, right? Except the campaign was so afraid that there might be an embarrassing photo of him sitting with an empty table that they went to Walmart the night before and bought $5,000 worth of granola bars, diapers and canned food to put in the pictures.
It gets worse. It turns out the whole idea was bad even before that, because the Red Cross specifically asks that people not donate “stuff” during emergencies. As you can imagine, dropping off a truck of granola bars and blankets presents them with very specific logistical challenges, like inspecting, cleaning, transporting and distributing them. It's infinitely more efficient to write a check, so that they can coordinate locally with wholesale supply distributors for whatever specific goods they've determined are actually in need.
Clearly, no one in the campaign checked, because it wasn't about helping victims. It was about looking good and campaigning at a time when it's pretty much impossible not to look bad while campaigning. This came off of a week in which Romney had asserted that Jeep was going to move all of their manufacturing to China – a completely bogus claim that the campaign refused to revoke and even continued to run a version of in what the Washington Post called "astonishingly dishonest" radio ads in Ohio. Just like the primary, it seems like a candidate who at times seemed so destined to win, insists on squandering the big bump he got in the first debate, while he trips over blades of grass on his way to the finish line.
As for the campaign, it's got to be one of the worst in the history of presidential politics (though McCain's came close). How does the party that runs such effective and successful Congressional and state legislative campaigns do so poorly in general elections, and why hasn't anyone hired Karl Rove to run one since 2004? Romney's people simply don't know their candidate, especially his weaknesses. At times like this, Romney needs to be locked in a closet somewhere until it's safe to come out and talk about the economy. Any points he would have gotten from unemployment ticking up a tenth of a point in the final jobs report prior to Tuesday was lost in the noise of him looking like a fool in a must-win state. That's what they call bad optics.
Meanwhile, President Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looked like best buds on their bro-fest up and down the East Coast of the Garden State. Governor Christie, who just two months ago was giving the keynote speech at Romney's convention, couldn't say enough good things about the president. Now, given, the guy with the federal checkbook is in his state, parts of which have been all but eviscerated, so it's not like he's going to slip digs in, but Christie's praise was so over the top that I swear I thought he was going to endorse the president at some point.
This was on the heels of independent (and rightward leaning) Mayor Michael Bloomberg changing his mind about not endorsing either candidate and throwing his endorsement to the president, a decision that he implied was largely based on his concern about the very real challenge of climate change, and perhaps feelings that the Obama administration would be more forward-thinking in addressing them.
How much a lukewarm endorsement from a mayor of a city that is solidly Democrat will help, especially since the billionaire financial-data mogul (who is the 10th richest man in the United States) is little-known on the national scene, remains to be seen. But the momentum definitely seems to be in the president's favor heading into the home stretch. If the Romney campaign has a November surprise, they'd best roll it out pronto.
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