What Mitt Romney could learn from the 2010 Iron Bowl

Cliff Sims Founder and CEO, Yellowhammer Strategies
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If you were to have walked around the University of Alabama’s campus earlier this year, there is a good chance you would have at some point seen a poster with the words “NEVER AGAIN” shouting at you in bold block letters. Nothing else needed to be said. Everyone on campus — everyone in the state — knew what it meant.

The Iron Bowl is the annual meeting between Alabama’s two perennial football powers: The University of Alabama and Auburn University. In the 2010 Iron Bowl, Alabama surged to a commanding 24-0 halftime lead before Auburn rallied in the second half to complete an improbable comeback, winning 28-27 in Alabama’s hallowed Bryant-Denny Stadium. After the game, Alabama vowed “never again.”

Everything had gone so right for Alabama in the first half. The team’s Heisman Trophy winner was racking up yards on the ground and its defense had Auburn’s offensive attack completely out of sync. Auburn had been a high-wire act throughout much of the 2010 season, having come back from many deficits to win close games at the end — but 24-0 seemed insurmountable. Except it wasn’t. At some point, Alabama quit playing to win and instead started playing to not lose. There is a huge difference.

The Mitt Romney campaign could learn a lot from the 2010 Iron Bowl. Governor Romney jumped out to a commanding lead early on, and for a while his nomination seemed inevitable. Even as one GOP contender after another spiked in the polls only to flame out a short time later, Romney maintained his standing as the front-runner. But the Romney campaign hasn’t been playing to win — it’s just been trying to run-out the clock.

Last week, The Daily Caller reported that Romney hadn’t appeared on any major Sunday morning news show since March 7 — almost three full months before he announced his candidacy. Romney’s staffers say they’re simply trying to control the campaign’s message. And to their credit, their strategy has largely worked. Even the media has fallen victim to Romney’s game-plan by frequently naming him the winner of debates, not because he delivered the best performance, but because he didn’t have any major gaffes and because his opponents didn’t put any chinks in his armor of inevitability. Only recently have many in the media publicly expressed frustration with the Romney campaign’s unwillingness to grant them access.

However, the consequence of Romney making few appearances is that his infrequent interviews are placed under an even greater microscope. This finally caught up with him during a recent interview with Bret Baier in which Romney was visibly annoyed by Baier’s line of questioning. Suddenly the campaign’s attempt to “control the message” was being seen as a ploy to shelter the candidate from having to answer tough questions.

Meanwhile, all of this has played right into Newt Gingrich’s hands. The former speaker of the House has been all over radio and television. Even before his surge in the polls, he was a frequent guest on cable news programs and the talk radio circuit. While Romney was making every effort to float above the fray, Gingrich was dropping one-liners and daring Republican primary voters to nominate him so he could mop the floor with President Obama in three-hour-long, Lincoln-Douglas style debates.

The most dangerous thing about playing to not lose rather than playing to win is that, as the game gets closer and closer, the potential for collapse tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But playing to not lose is usually the result of having successfully played to win at some point. Governor Romney needs to remember what that feels like.

It appears that the Romney campaign may finally be ready to make a move: The campaign just announced that Romney will be appearing on “Fox News Sunday” this weekend. But we’ll have to wait to see if he comes out swinging — going for the win — or if he continues to just try to skate through.

While Alabama had a year to think about its mistakes before punishing Auburn in this year’s Iron Bowl, the Romney campaign has to make a course correction immediately, as we’re now less than a month away from the Iowa caucuses. Is the 2012 GOP primary still Mitt Romney’s to lose? Probably. But he’d be much better served by looking at it as his race to win.

Cliff Sims is the chairman of the Alabama College Republicans and founder of Generation NOW, an organization formed to educate and empower a new generation of leaders. His Twitter handle is @Cliff_Sims.