All Hallows' Eve is upon us, but not in its ordinary annual form. Instead we're in the midst of the quadrennial version where an implacable army of hollow-eyed zombies—political junkies—consumes each day's latest poll numbers like so many handfuls of candy corn. Voters, especially in swing states, endure what must seem like a waking nightmare of endless negative campaign commercials.
In this season of trick or treat, the emphasis is definitely on the trick.
Consider, for example, the costume that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been running around in all month: Ever since the first presidential debate in Colorado, the self-described "severely conservative" pol has been parading around as Mitt the mild moderate.
That was never more starkly on display than Monday night during the foreign policy-focused presidential debate. He had spent most of his campaign growling out neoconservative rhetoric about American exceptionalism aimed at obscuring the fact that he had few if any substantive policy differences with the president. ("It sounded like you thought that you'd do the same things we did, but you'd say them louder and somehow that—that would make a difference," Obama needled him Monday.) But wearing his "moderate Mitt" costume on Monday, the GOP nominee changed his tune—he tried to out-peacenik the president ("We can't kill our way out of this mess") when he bothered trying to express any differences at all. His parade of agreements with the president made one wonder whether he shouldn't have just worn an Obama mask out onto the stage.
And it wasn't just his previous national security rhetoric he hoped to Etch A Sketch out of public memory. Romney continues to fight a rearguard action against his own written and spoken words about the auto bailout. He and Obama got into a heated exchange about his November 2008 New York Times op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt." A seemingly indignant Romney declared that "the idea that has been suggested that I would liquidate the [auto] industry, of course not. Of course not." Of course not, indeed—Romney didn't advocate liquidation; he simply advocated a course of action that would have led to liquidation. It's true that his op-ed contemplated the federal government providing guarantees, but they were for "post-bankruptcy financing."
But at the time the companies needed more than post-bankruptcy federal guarantees; they needed cash to get them through the process, and that money wasn't going to come from the private capital markets in late 2008 or early 2009. It was either taxpayer money or nothing. And that Romney clearly opposed. "There's no question but that if you just write a check that you're going to see these companies go out of business ultimately," Romney told CBS News then in a video clip turned up this week by the Huffington Post. Later, during the Republican primary portion of his never-ending campaign, he railed against the policy. "My view with regards to the bailout was that…it was the wrong way to go," he said during a 2011 debate.
Romney's opposition to the bailout was easy. It was popular. But now it's dogging him like a cheap slasher-flick monster that he can't seem to kill, "moderate Mitt" guise or no. It has probably doomed him in Michigan and it may well prove his undoing in Ohio, which seems likely to decide the election.
This despite another trick which is proving a treat for Republicans: the myth of "Mitt-mentum." The first debate undeniably gave Romney's effort a jolt and helped him capitalize on a race that was already tightening. But with Obama winning the latter two debates, the race has seemed to stabilize into a walking dead heat. However that hasn't stopped the Romney campaign from very visibly assuming the posture of a group coasting to an inexorable victory.
This has ranged from explicit gamesmanship ("…for the first time in six years, Romney folks E-mailed, 'We're going to win,' " Politico's Mike Allen reported in his "Playbook") to subtler head faints meant to signal strength. See, for example, last week's announcement that the GOP was pulling resources (which proved to be a single staffer) out of North Carolina to drip-drip-drip discussion of maybe, possibly re-entering Pennsylvania. "If Romney acts and speaks like a landslide is on the way, perhaps he can create the atmospherics he needs for a small and meaningful win," Politico's Alexander Burns reported this week. As New York magazine's Jonathan Chait and Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall have pointed out, this is a classic campaign-closing bluff last seen in 2000 when Karl Rove had George W. Bush doing a pre-election victory lap in California with an eye toward creating momentum through buzz.
And to some extent the current Romney bluff is working. Asked Wednesday at an Aspen Institute event who is winning, ABC News Political Director Amy Walter said that if "you look at the news coverage and you look at the data…you get two different answers." The news narrative, she said, is one of an "ascendant" Romney with the "momentum." But the data—state by state polls, for example—tell a different story. "The underneath numbers suggest that it's still Obama's race right now, that fundamentally he has got the edge in the Electoral College."
Fables of Rom-mentum haven't managed to crack that electoral lock yet. Neither has Romney's transformation back into a moderate wiped away the damage he did to his electability during his conservative phase. But he still might solve that problem—and that's the scariest Halloween news of all.
- Read Brad Bannon: Mitt Romney's Bad Company
- Read Mary Kate Cary: Exposing Barack Obama's 'False Choice'
- Take the U.S. News poll: Do the media pay too much attention to election poll data?