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Why Mitt Romney’s Presidential Prospects May Not Be Salvageable

Business School Case Study: Company R has the financial resources, the professional staff, the marketing know-how, and the business expertise to dominate its competition. But despite the near-universal familiarity of its signature product, Company R has been dramatically losing market share to upstart challenger Company S, which until recently was little-noticed outside of rural Iowa.

Company R is obviously due for a major re-branding. But there is a major obstacle—Company R has changed its marketing strategy so often in the last decade that consumers have no clear idea what makes it distinctive. Asked to describe Company R’s positive attributes, focus-group participants constantly say things like “It’s rich” and “It’s safe” and “It’s there.”

Because Company R’s sales are plunging in Michigan, the state where it got its start, the futures markets are shorting the stock. Suddenly, a total collapse seems possible. Assignment: Prepare a PowerPoint showing how you would execute a rapid-fire turnaround.

THE MITT ROMNEY CRISIS transcends the seven straight national polls showing Rick Santorum in the lead. It goes beyond the embarrassing reality that the son of an auto executive and two-term governor has been behind in every Michigan poll conducted since Groundhog’s Day. Even more devastating for Romney is that elite Republicans have begun to conclude that he cannot, if nominated, beat Barack Obama. About the only argument that still works for Romney among GOP insiders is that he would be less of a drag on the ticket than the strident Santorum or the mercurial Newt Gingrich.  

With the exception of Mike Dukakis (what is it about governors of Massachusetts?), it is impossible to recall a top-tier presidential contender who aroused such little passion among the voters. Perhaps Bob Dole in 1996—but if the Bobster didn't inspire awe in Republican voters, he could at least count on their respect. Compared to Dole's status as a former vice-presidential nominee, Senate leader, and war hero, Romney's boasts about the 2002 Winter Olympics and his single term as governor suffer from transparent grade inflation.

Of course, other major presidential contenders have faced the political abyss and managed to rebound to win the nomination. But no one has ever quite faced Romney’s particular double whammy of problems: that he's not very well liked by voters while simultaneously being considered ideologically suspect by party activists. Romney can find plenty of precedents in recent presidential history, but none of them will provide much solace.

Bill Clinton (1992). Roughly one million male babies were born in America between August 1946 and March 1947. Among them, it is hard to imagine two that had less in common (other than high IQ’s) than Romney and Clinton. In 1992, facing furors over both Gennifer Flowers and his Vietnam draft record, Clinton begged New Hampshire voters for a second chance telling them, “I’ll be with you until the last dog dies.” If Romney tried to turn on the charisma in an effort to morph into the Comeback Kid, it would come out as something wooden like: “Well, gosh. I will be with you using the job-creation skills that I learned in the private sector until we get Seamus off the car roof.”

George W. Bush (2000). After John McCain won the New Hampshire primary in a 19-point landslide, Bush was in danger of losing not only his aura of inevitability but also the nomination itself. McCain had a potent issue (campaign reform) while Bush had his family pedigree and bromides about “compassionate conservatism.” With Bush facing potential defeat in the South Carolina primary, Karen Hughes pulled off one of the most brazen acts of political repackaging in recent history. At a South Carolina rally, Bush was suddenly proclaimed as the “Reformer with Results,” even though he had displayed scant interest in campaign reform as Texas governor. This adroit blurring of McCain’s message played a major role in the Bush bounce back.

Romney might admire the cynicism of the Bush gambit, but the man from Bain Capital has already gone through more costume changes than the Royal Shakespeare Company. Each time Romney claims to be something he isn’t, he excavates deeper into his personal credibility gap. At CPAC earlier this month, he boldly tried to recast his moderate record as Massachusetts’ governor as a bit to the right of Calvin Coolidge. But Romney was not satisfied with his speech text claiming to have been a “conservative governor.” So, with his unerring instinct for insincere bombast, Romney ad-libbed that he was a “severely conservative governor.”

The solution to many problems of political authenticity is for the candidate to abandon the dictates of his handlers and just go with his instincts. The problem for Romney is that the doctrine of “Let Mitt Be Mitt” would probably produce a candidate with the warmth of a business consultant and the inner conviction of a market-based algorithm. In short, hiding behind that Mitt Romney mask is (yikes) another Mitt Romney mask.

John Kerry (2004). Unable to compete with Howard Dean’s antiwar fervor and John Edwards’ ersatz populism, Kerry was flailing in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Despite rivaling Romney with his frosty demeanor (what is it about Massachusetts?), Kerry prevailed by convincing Democrats that his war record offered the party a formula for victory in November. After his back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Massachusetts senator romped to the nomination as a rare modern candidate whose calling card was his purported electability.

Kerry boasted an advantage in the 2004 race that Romney lacks—a 20-year record of ideological consistency. Like all of his rivals except for Dean, Kerry erred in initially voting for the Iraq War. But Kerry, who made his initial reputation as a soldier turned Vietnam critic, never had any major problems convincing party activists that he was a liberal who had made an isolated mistake.

Romney, in contrast, went into this campaign offering Republican activists little more than the promise that he would be the strongest candidate against Obama. But as Romney’s scorched-earth campaign tactics drive down his general-election poll numbers and his campaign-trail awkwardness jeopardizes his argument for electability, he is left without a rationale for his candidacy. If Republicans don’t feel good about Romney and don’t think he will win in November, then why would they vote for him in the primaries?

The brutal truth is that there are some business-school problems that are as hard to solve as Fermat’s Last Theorem. A new marketing campaign or a clever slogan cannot save a dog food that the dogs don’t like. So too is it with the Romney campaign. At this point, his only hope is to prevail by using about the oldest argument in politics: “The other guys are worse.” And considering the caliber of his opponents (the Three Horsemen of the Republican Apocalypse), Mitt Romney may just get away with it in the primary. But this is not the stuff that promising general election campaigns are made of.

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.