HERE’S A VENTURE-capital pop quiz. Over seven months, you’ve invested more than $5 million in a sure thing. At least, as sure as sure things get: all the experts say it’s a winner, and consumers seem to agree; they say overwhelmingly in poll after poll that if this product were available, they’d take it. But during your period of investment, the product’s prospects have gone down, not up. Do you keep throwing money into the investment? Or do you walk away?
That’s the position Republican gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney is in right now. Well, almost — Romney’s not preparing in any way to walk away from his campaign for Massachusetts governor. But if he were scrutinizing his campaign the way he did his investments when he headed Bain Capital, he might be getting ready to pull the plug on his run for governor instead of injecting $2 million of his own money into the campaign as he did in September.
Seven months ago, when Romney returned to Massachusetts from a three-year stint in Utah as president of the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, he looked invincible. Varnished with the gloss of his leadership of the Winter Olympics, Romney boasted a 63-point lead over Governor Jane Swift in a Boston Herald poll of potential voters in a Republican primary. Even before Swift dropped out, the Herald reported the Democrats were already scrambling to "tarnish the popular Olympic chieftain." The Boston Globe dubbed Romney the "White Knight."
In retrospect, the poll seems to have reflected Swift’s disfavor with the public, not Romney’s popularity. Nevertheless, those poll numbers, plus the millions of campaign dollars Romney could spend, prompted Swift to abandon her bid for governor. As early as April, at the time of the Republican convention, Romney began running ads sporadically. And he’s been blanketing television airwaves with political advertising at least since June, when be began fighting the challenge to his Massachusetts residency. But for all his efforts, Romney’s standing in the polls has fallen. Perhaps most alarming for the gubernatorial candidate is that in the last two weeks of September, during which he pulled no closer than even with his Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien, he outspent her campaign by about $10 for every one of hers ($1.7 million versus $159,291). Even more telling, though, is that Romney has already spent $5,248,998 versus O’Brien’s $3,698,565 — even though he had no primary opponent.
All that said, Romney is by no means out of the governor’s race. Recent polls suggest that the contest has tightened in the last week. A poll conducted by Zogby International found that O’Brien led Romney 42 to 40 percent; one by Democratic pollster John Gorman of Opinion Dynamics put O’Brien at 43 and Romney at 40. Both polls are much more encouraging for the GOP candidate than the Suffolk University poll last week that put Romney 12 points behind O’Brien. Clearly, Romney can still win the governor’s race. But this isn’t good news for the candidate. At this point in the campaign, he was supposed to have the election locked up. Given his access to moneyed GOP political donors, not to mention his own personal fortune and national celebrity, his "still in the running" status is something of a disappointment, to say the least. So what went wrong? Well, many things.
For starters, Romney has failed to connect with voters. Unlike O’Brien, who has spent hundreds of hours in sometimes tedious town meetings with residents from around the state, Romney’s political events have been little more than photo ops. Even at times when Romney has been most substantive — his famous PowerPoint presentations, such as his address to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, come to mind — he has failed to engage with the public. But even worse than his inability to connect, perhaps, is that Romney’s campaign has betrayed internal contradictions and mixed messages at nearly every stage. He is a corporate leader who doesn’t talk about his work in business, for fear of being tarnished by current anti-CEO sentiment. He is the son of the Republican establishment — as much or more a political insider as O’Brien or Swift — who avoids discussion of his father, a former Michigan governor, because he seeks to run as an outsider. He eschews talk of some of his most honorable efforts, such as his work as a Mormon missionary, presumably to keep religious questions off the table in the governor’s race. All of which neutralizes the effectiveness of the money he spends getting out his message.