Romney to donors: Obama won because of "gifts" he gave to his base

He told Hannity in early October that his “47 percent” comments were “completely wrong” but he doesn’t sound convinced of that here. Not exactly makers-versus-takers, but close:

In a conference call on Wednesday afternoon with his national finance committee, Mr. Romney said that the president had followed the “old playbook” of wooing specific interest groups — “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people,” Mr. Romney explained — with targeted gifts and initiatives.

“In each case they were very generous in what they gave to those groups,” Mr. Romney said.

“With regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of college loan interest, was a big gift,” he said. “Free contraceptives were very big with young college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people. They turned out in large numbers, a larger share in this election even than in 2008.”

The president’s health care plan, he added, was also a useful tool in mobilizing African-American and Hispanic voters.

He went on to mention Obama’s decision to unilaterally impose a de facto DREAM safe harbor for young illegals. And don’t forget O’s “evolution” on gay marriage, which coincidentally came right around the time his campaign was shifting away from trying to win independents and towards maximizing turnout among his base, i.e. young voters. The question, though, isn’t whether O is guilty of “clientelism,” to borrow Jay Cost’s phrase, it’s whether clientelism was decisive. What say you, Bobby Jindal?

Asked about Romney’s comments at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association at the Encore Hotel here in Las Vegas, Jindal did not hold back. “That is absolutely wrong,” Jindal said. “Two points on that. One, we have got to stop dividing American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent — we need to go after every single vote. And second, we need to continue to show that our policies help every voter out there achieve the American dream, which is to be in the middle class, which is to be able to give their children the opportunity to get a great education, which is for their children to have even better-paying jobs than their parents.”

“So I absolutely reject that notion, that description,” Jindal continued. I think it’s absolutely wrong. I don’t think that represents where we are as a party and where we’re going as a party. And that has got to be one of the most fundamental takeaways from this election. If we’re going to continue to be a competitive party and win elections on the national stage and continue to fight for our conservative principles, we need two messages to get out loudly and clearly. One, we are fighting for 100 percent of the votes, and secondly, our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream, period. No exceptions.”

That’s the sound of a man who’s running in 2016 and who has a better ear than Mitt Romney for how to talk to middle-class voters. If you buy the makers-versus-takers clientelism explanation, the GOP really might as well not field candidates in national elections going forward. In an age of fiscal crisis, it’ll never keep deficit hawks in the party fold by trying to out-“gift” Democrats; either the party will fracture or the crisis will hit and there won’t be any money for “gifts” anyway. There are three big reasons why Romney lost, I think, and none of them are about gifts. First, people just … didn’t like him that much. His favorable numbers improved towards the end after the Denver debate, but at best he was at rough parity with Obama. Not a good place to be with a vulnerable incumbent. More from Andrew Kohut at Pew:

Here is what the exit poll found. Mr. Romney’s personal image took a hard hit during the primary campaign and remained weak on election day. Just 47% of exit-poll respondents viewed him favorably, compared with 53% for Mr. Obama. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Romney’s favorable ratings were among the lowest recorded for a presidential candidate in the modern era. A persistent problem was doubt about his empathy with the average voter. By 53% to 43%, exit-poll respondents said that Mr. Obama was more in touch than Mr. Romney with people like themselves…

Mr. Romney was hurt by the perception—reinforced by Democratic attack ads and his secretly recorded comments about the “47%”—that he wasn’t for the average voter. With 55% of voters in the exit poll saying they think the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy, a large majority believed that Mr. Obama’s policies favor the middle class (44%) or the poor (31%). By contrast, 53% thought Mr. Romney’s policies would favor the rich.

Second, he got out-organized — badly. We’ve been over this already to some extent in wallowing over how ORCA failed and how Romney’s pollsters misread the electorate, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. Every day for the past week, some dispiriting new news story has appeared describing how Obama’s campaign team was doing something smarter or cheaper or more efficiently(!) than Mitt’s team. Here’s a NYT piece about Team O developing its own data-driven TV ratings system based on political leanings (“the Optimizer”) so that it could make more targeted ad buys. Here’s one about Team O hiring a “dream team” of behavioral scientists to help them figure out little things they could do that might encourage irregular voters to actually go down to the polling place. (Yes, it’s a little creepy.) Here’s one about Obama’s Super PAC using online media to maximize the number of views its videos got at a fraction of the cost Republican groups incurred to air their stuff on traditional media. I almost prefer to think that the election result was a demographic fait accompli because that hurts less than thinking Team Mitt and conservative groups might have left a winning margin out on the field simply because they didn’t know how to leverage it into turnout.

Third, I’m echoing other conservative writers in saying this — Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, and Reihan Salam, for starters — but the GOP needs a more dynamic pitch to working families, a.k.a. the middle class. That’s what Jindal’s rejection of Romney is all about. “Class” talk tends to make righties nervous for good reason; coming from the left, it’s almost always a prelude to calls for redistribution. But it’s a useful way to define people whose lives are consumed with familiar problems of everyday life — work, pay, debt, tuition, gas prices. Address those basic concerns and they’ll pay attention. Besides, if the GOP is doomed under normal demographic metrics like race and gender, then it urgently needs to try to reshape how voters define themselves. Emphasize the middle class and you can compete across demographics that might otherwise view you coolly. This is all basic stuff, I know, but those numbers in Kohut’s piece means it’s not basic enough. More from Ponnuru:

The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations: an important story with which most people do not identify. The ordinary person does not see himself as a great innovator. He, or she, is trying to make a living and support or maybe start a family. A conservative reform of our health-care system and tax code, among other institutions, might help with these goals. About this person, however, Republicans have had little to say…

The perception that the Republican party serves the interests only of the rich underlies all the demographic weaknesses that get discussed in narrower terms. Hispanics do not vote for the Democrats solely because of immigration. Many of them are poor and lack health insurance, and they hear nothing from the Republicans but a lot from the Democrats about bettering their situation. Young people, too, are economically insecure, especially these days. If Republicans found a way to apply conservative principles in ways that offered tangible benefits to most voters and then talked about this agenda in those terms, they would improve their standing among all of these groups while also increasing their appeal to white working-class voters. For that matter, higher-income voters would prefer candidates who seem practical and solution-oriented. Better “communications skills,” that perennial item on the wish list of losing parties, will achieve little if the party does not have an appealing agenda to communicate.

He goes on to note that, for all his alleged unpopularity, Romney still ran ahead of lots of other Republicans down ballot in various states. Poor perceptions of the party can’t all be blamed on him, in other words, even if the rhetoric about “gifts” isn’t doing would-be nominees like Jindal any favors for 2016. But like I say: If that’s our working theory, that there’s no way back to power without buying off constituencies, then what exactly is the path back? How do you win an election again under those circumstances? Or have people just given up?

Update: Oh, and in case anyone’s inclined to beat up on Jindal for what he said, rest assured that someone will be running on a platform of middle-class outreach in 2016 and whoever does is bound to be competitive. Huckabee, who talks about this endlessly, might very well have been competitive this year with Romney if he’d run; Santorum ran partly on that message instead and got further than anyone thought. If anyone’s going to surf to the nomination four years from now by championing the middle-class, I’d much rather it be Jindal or Paul Ryan.

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