How Real is Mittmentum?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Jonathan Chait argues somewhat convincingly that there is no Romney surge. Well, there was a Romney surge, for a while. It stalled out with the candidate leading narrowly in national polls and losing the electoral college. And it’s stuck, despite all the anonymous quotes reporters are getting from Romney folks who speak of new, strong ‘mentum.

Last week, Paul Ryan held a rally in Pittsburgh. Romney moving in to Pennsylvania! On the offensive! Skeptical reporters noted that Ryan’s rally would bleed into the media coverage in southeast Ohio and that Romney was not devoting any real money to Pennsylvania. Romney’s campaign keeps leaking that it is planning to spend money there. (Today’s leak: “Republicans are genuinely intrigued by the prospect of a strike in Pennsylvania and, POLITICO has learned, are considering going up on TV there outside the expensive Philadelphia market.” Note the noncommittal terms: intrigued and considering.)

Can’t two things be true? Can’t it be true, first that the Romney campaign is both up and overstating its momentum, to take advantage of the horse race story? After all, if you’re winning the horse race story, you’re winning all manner of fringe benefits. An Obama who’s in position to win and mocking “Romnesia” is deploying a successful zinger. An Obama who’s losing the horse race is “desparately clinging to small ideas,” like “Romnesia.”

But can’t it also be true that Romney’s put himself in the position to win? One of the factors that makes this race easy to cover is that the Obama strategy was telegraphed 14 months ago. Mitt Romney would probably be the GOP’s nominee. He was, on paper, a good candidate, one whom voters did not see as a radical conservative.

“First, they’ve got to like you, and there’s not a lot to like about Mitt Romney,” said Chicago Democratic consultant Pete Giangreco, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. “There’s no way to hide this guy and hide his innate phoniness.”

A senior Obama adviser was even more cutting, suggesting that the Republican’s personal awkwardness will turn off voters.

“There’s a weirdness factor with Romney, and it remains to be seen how he wears with the public,” the adviser said, noting that the contrasts they’d drive between the president and the former Massachusetts governor would be “based on character to a great extent.”

The plan was to convince soft swing voters that Romney was so odious, such a rapacious capitalist, that, well, hell, they had better stick with Obama. All Romney needed to do to fix this was come off relatively warm and relatable in presidential debates. He did this, in the first and third debates. If you want to be really quick about it, Romney might have fixed his personality issue with his cute joke at the start of the night in Denver, about how “romantic” it was for Obama to spend a wedding anniversary on a debate stage.

If you look at the polling average, Romney took off like a rocket after that first debate. Then his numbers settled. But the numbers beneath the horse race? Much higher Romney favorabilities. Like John Kerry in 2004, he went from being a ridiculous joke of a candidate to relatively likeable. “He’s more likable than Obama now!” said Romney adviser Stu Stevens last night after the debate, referring to the favorables.

A less likeable Romney showed up on the debate stage in New York; a marginally less likable one showed up in Florida. But if voters have largely warmed to you, all you need to do is win the “momentum” storyline and reporters stop looking for ways in which you’re turning people off. Ask Scott Brown, who – as Massachusetts voters are finding out now – can be a spiteful, snide candidate when the chips are down. When he had momentum, nobody noticed.