The Atlantic’s Molly Ball has a terrific column up today, detailing Mitt Romney’s plethora of campaign problems. One of the many criticisms she reports on is his campaign’s “lack of outreach to the conservative movement and the media generally…”
This certainly rings true.
There are, of course, many facets to a presidential campaign. I’m not naive or narcissistic enough to think wooing conservative bloggers or journalists is a political panacea.
Having said that, it is clear that John McCain (considering the many, many obstacles he faced with conservatives!) over-performed with conservative bloggers. He did this largely by being incredibly accessible. McCain’s team realized he would have to work hard to avoid the situation where conservative opinion leaders were universally against him. And so he did the work.
This was a big help for McCain in ’08 — so why didn’t Mitt Romney even attempt to replicate the strategy in ’12? There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to that.
(Note: We can argue over whether or not it is a healthy phenomenon that politicians who grant more access tend to be rewarded with more positive coverage. On the negative side, one could argue that politicians seduce journalists — that this is an insidious and corrupt form of bias, which does not serve the public well. On the other hand, it seems reasonable that skeptical reporters or bloggers might have their concerns assuaged by being granted the opportunity to ask questions and meet with a candidate.)
In any event, rather than copying McCain’s aggressive and inclusive outreach strategy, Romney’s campaign went the other direction, adopting — as Ball reports — a “myopic, insular and overconfident,” strategy.
Here’s how it seems to work: If you’re one of a handful of conservative writers or media outlets who have consumed the Romney “Kool-Aid” (you know who you are!), then you are to be trusted and granted access and information. Otherwise, forget about it. You’re not getting any information.
This is foolish, for a variety of reasons. First, if the only positive press you get comes from those who are transparently in the tank for you, there quickly comes a point of diminishing returns. (There’s a boring “dog bites man” quality associated with reading someone who always totes the party line.) Second, it’s certainly not gracious. It makes him look petty and arrogant. Third, it requires a certain amount of Nixonian hubris to think you can simply write-off — cut-off — people who dare say something negative about your candidate — and still profit from it. (Has Romney ever heard the saying: “Don’t get mad. Don’t get even. Get ahead.”?)
Smart campaigns try to win you over. Smart campaigns realize their job is messy — that it’s not just about garnering positive press — that it’s also to minimizing bad press. Smart campaigns get it. Political operatives aren’t magicians, of course. They can’t talk ethical reporters into burying stories that might hurt their candidate. What they can sometimes do, however, is this: Take a story that might normally be a level 9 (in terms of its damage) and turn it into a level 6.
This never happens for Mitt Romney.