In the campaign world, it's almost a cardinal rule: Undersell your chances, then overdeliver at the ballot box. Former Gov. Mitt Romney never got the memo on this, and he might well pay a severe price for this misstep in next week's Michigan primary.
After squeaking by in the disputed Maine nominating contest and getting clocked by Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado before that, Romney's veneer of invincibility was gone and his campaign was left to deal with a harder question: Could he lose his home state of Michigan?
True, Romney was born in Michigan, where his father was a prominent auto executive and later governor. But Mitt Romney is more identified with Massachusetts, where he served as governor, or even with Mormon (like him) Utah, where he rescued the 2002 Winter Olympics.
He could've had it both ways. He could've acknowledged his family's deep connection to Michigan without declaring himself "a son of Detroit." Expectations would've been lower, and the connection—for any benefit it may hold next Tuesday—would've been solidified.
But he used those exact words—son of Detroit—to describe himself in a widely circulated op-ed in The Detroit News.
This went over about as well as could be expected for the campaign that can't seem to shoot straight in recent weeks. Poll numbers barely budged. Talk of losing the home state intensified—one Republican U.S. senator said, "If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate." And the campaign had to pull out the checkbook and again try to buy a primary by carpet-bombing the opponents with negative ads.
Then, in hardscrabble Michigan—home to shuttered factories, high unemployment, and one of the weakest state economies in the nation—Romney decided to unleash his secret weapon—Donald Trump. The Donald, who endorsed Romney after his own campaign flamed out, toured the state stumping for Romney and, no doubt, making deep connections with working-class or wish-they-were-working-class voters in the Wolverine State.
At that point, the Obama campaign no longer could resist joining in the fun. A super PAC associated with the president made its own huge ad buy to thwart Romney's plan for a happy homecoming. It's like the Fourth of July in Michigan right now—negative ad bombs going off in every direction.
And because Romney could not leave well enough alone, could not underpromise and overdeliver, and could not resist calling himself "a son of Detroit," his campaign has spent the last two weeks trying to douse the political equivalent of a five-alarm fire.
Romney should've focused on Arizona all along. Its primary—the same day as Michigan's—yields 29 delegates in a winner-take-all format. Michigan's yields 30, awarded proportionally. If Romney hadn't spent a dime on Michigan, he probably would've ended up with more delegates on the day than his current chief rival, former Sen. Rick Santorum. Santorum lags in the polls in Arizona and didn't help himself with a poor debate performance in the state on Wednesday night.
Ironically, as we inch closer to the two primaries next Tuesday, Team Romney has begun to lower expectations in Michigan—to say the state is not, in fact, a must-win for his campaign. No kidding.
But the Romney camp could've saved itself a lot of money and a giant headache if it had started off trying to shape the narrative rather than becoming beholden to it.