The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Mitt Romney’s Collapse

The Republican’s response to every campaign crisis only makes him less popular.

A “convention bounce” isn’t news and it usually doesn’t last until November. Likewise, a week or so of lousy polls and bad news — even if it’s really, really bad news — doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh. Campaigns are about ups and downs. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should both expect highs and lows in the polls as election day draws nearer and so should each ticket’s supporters.

But given the fundamentals of this campaign, the very fact that President Obama has pulled sharply ahead, even if only by a few points, is likely to keep him ahead. It will precipitate a series of reactions and missteps from Mitt Romney, allowing the Democrats to stick their convention bounce and ride on through to victory in November.

In other words, the polls, usually a snapshot, are likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if you support Mitt Romney, it’s hard not to admit that this can’t be the campaign he wanted to run. Part of the reason that he won the nomination was that he was the most viable candidate on the Republican side. But in exchange for passing over, among others, a vapid pizza magnate and a frequently forgetful George W. Bush impressionist, the party seems to have nominated the Monopoly Man.

Everything about the Romney campaign, from policy to persona, reinforces the notion of wealth based elitism. Making the $10,000 bet with Texas governor Rick Perry in the debates was problematic. Issuing a tax plan that Democrats say will increase the burden on the poor and middle class while lowering rates for the rich is more Ayn Randian than Republican. And choosing to leave just what is in his tax returns to the imagination of voters and reporters alike only leaves room for the most fantastic assumptions about his finances.

The “47 percent” comment may have been the final straw. By insulting and writing off a group that contains students, the elderly, the recently unemployed, soldiers, disabled veterans, many Republicans and few actual freeloaders, Mitt Romney seems to have completed the transition of conservatism from “compassionate” to “callous.” By doing so, he enters the final stretch of the general election with an unprecedented negative favorability rating.

If possible, Romney’s campaign has made the situation worse. It has shown that it doesn’t react well in a crisis. Hastily called press conferences, circular firing squads among staffers and the fast rate of flip flops from the candidate’s own mouth are not evidence of an expert campaign. A good reaction to a crisis? President Obama’s “race speech” in March 2008. It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney pulling that sort of thing off after any of the campaign gaffes he has made since the Republican National Convention last month.

Possibly Romney’s worst problem is the pressure that he feels from the right in moments when he needs to turn things around. He had to court the most conservative element in his party in order to win the nomination but has found it extremely difficult to pivot or pull an “etch-a-sketch” to the center now that it is general election season.

The right, believing that this election is theirs’ to lose, gets spooked too easily by blips in the polling data and missteps by a candidate that they’ve been suspicious of since day one. When the campaign hits a bump, the right lacks patience. Seeking to win the news cycle, it has focused on the tactical rather than the strategic goal of winning the election.

The results have not been good. Romney’s welfare reform commercial, in which President Obama is accused of repealing the “work for welfare” requirement, has been derided as a lie by most media — but the campaign’s reaction is that it “won’t be dictated by fact checkers.” Romney’s reaction to the Egyptian and Libyan embassy attacks lacked both class and accurate information. His response to the “47 percent” video was muddled and more concerned with distractions vis-à-vis “redistribution” than addressing the content of his own surreptitiously filmed remark.

When Mitt Romney is in trouble, he appears to go for a “Hail Mary” game change, every single time. When that doesn’t work, the conclusion is that he’s obviously not thrown the ball far or hard enough to the right. So he tacks even further to the fringe or desperately finds the next possible opportunity to go after the president — even if it’s on something Obama didn’t exactly say, didn’t do or at a time of national crisis.

All of these things look desperate and political, hurting Romney’s image and diluting his message. A devastating feedback loop results that puts Obama in a position to do what he does best: rope-a-dope.

In the 2008 election, the knockout blows didn’t come from the Obama campaign. Rather, they let their opponents knock themselves out, wracked by the stresses of the campaign and the panic and bad advice that set in as their windows of opportunity began to close.

This looks like a viable strategy for 2012 as well. With the news media and campaigns focusing on the last built-in game changers before election day, the debates, the expectations for Romney are high as they ever have been. He needs to win these debates and he needs to win them big.

But if the campaign that he’s run is any indication, it will instead be another opportunity to swing for the fences — and throw the election trying.