Mitt Romney strode to the podium on Thursday night at a distinct disadvantage, as the past two nights at the Republican National Convention had largely failed to generate the usual kind of jolt that would help push him past President Obama in the polls.
The Republican nominee —known for his business acumen but not his oratory prowess—needed to produce that level of energy all by himself. His words excited the crowd of GOP loyalists inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum, yet the next few days will decide whether this speech genuinely connected with the voters who will decide the election. And the early reviews suggest it didn’t.
The Ireland-based predictions market Intrade pegged Obama’s chance of winning at 55.7 percent the day before the convention started, a margin that actually increased over the next two days of speeches to 56.6 percent. It dipped back down to 55.7 percent ahead of Romney’s address—an indicator that keynote speaker New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the candidate’s own wife, Ann, were unable to rouse the necessary enthusiasm. And on Friday morning, it shot back up to 57 percent.
Mother Nature minimized Romney’s opportunity to capitalize on the occasion. Hurricane Isaac’s landfall split people’s attention on Tuesday and Wednesday, in addition to forcing the cancellation of Monday’s events so that Romney was working off a compressed schedule. And after a stirring biographical film on Thursday night, the momentum veered slightly off-track with an introductory speech Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and a surreal vaudevillian routine by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, who spoke to an empty chair filled by an imaginary Obama. NBC News anchor Brian Williams aptly described it as “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
In short, Romney—even with vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan at his side—was pretty much stuck going it alone. He delivered a sincere critique of Obama and a testimonial to his personal values—a competent but unsurprising monologue.
“I wish President Obama had succeeded, because I want America to succeed,” Romney said. “But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn't something we have to accept.”
The former Massachusetts governor trumpeted his strengths as a devoted family man and successful entrepreneur at Bain Capital, although his message was also aimed at addressing the perceived weaknesses in his campaign—a wooden demeanor on the trail and agender gap with women that must be narrowed in order for him to capture the White House.
The reviews from cable pundits afterward were respectful without being glowing.. Republican consultant Alex Castellanos dubbed the speech “good enough” on CNN, while Fox News’ Brit Hume concluded, “This was not a speech designed to move an audience.”
He mixed grandiose objectives—12 million new jobs, a military no other country would dare challenge, and a nostalgic return to a lifestyle out of a Norman Rockwell painting—with humble intentions, dinging the president for elaborate pledges to tackle climate change when the country needed jobs.
“President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” Romney said to knowing laughter from the audience. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
The criticism of Obama was founded on the disappointment that the big ideas of “Hope and Change” from 2008 never came to fruition. Unemployment remains high at 8.2 percent and the deficit has surpassed $1 trillion for four straight years. “You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him,” Romney said.
It seemed as through Romney recognized what had been lost in America, yet his calls for restoration were tied more to conventional political ideology than a determined vision.
His philosophy of America’s greatness was riddled with the contradictions inherent in any democracy. He praised the spirit of the late astronaut Neil Armstrong (whose steps “on the moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche”), without fully acknowledging that it took a monumental government program—rather than private enterprise alone—to plant the U.S. flag in a place that man had once only dreamt about.
The Obama campaign quickly responded during the speech that the economy should create 12 million jobs over the next four years—with or without Romney’s five-step plan—over the course of a natural recovery. But that feat has only been accomplished twice before under Bill Clinton and as part of the first three years under Jimmy Carter , who Romney pointedly said during his speech left the country worse off.
Less important was the Romney checklist for economic recovery and its vague details—energy independence, school choice, new trade agreements, deficit reduction, and lower taxes—than his attempt to appeal to women who make up the majority of the electorate.
Obama is favored 50 percent to 42 percent by women voters, according to the most recent polling by Gallup. Romney had to affirm the GOP’s pro-life platform while expressing the spirit of Rosie the Riveter from the World War II-era “We Can Do It” poster.
The candidate known for being the son of the late Michigan Gov. George Romney chose to focus on his mother, Lenore, who unsuccessfully campaigned for the Senate in 1970 at the behest of her husband. His personal support for women wasn’t in doubt afterward.
“My mom and dad were true partners, a life lesson that shaped me by everyday example,” Romney said. “When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way. I can still hear her saying in her beautiful voice, ‘Why should women have any less say than men, about the great decisions facing our nation?’
“I wish she could have been here at the convention and heard leaders like Governor Mary Fallin, Governor Nikki Haley, Governor Susana Martinez, Senator Kelly Ayotte and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice,” he continued to applause.
Romney peppered his message with references to Little League, chaperoning school field trips, and the importance of a loving family.
But did his soft appeal work? There will only be one surefire way to tell—the polls and surveys that get released over the next few days.
Since 1964, candidates usually receive a five-percentage point increase in popularity from their conventions, according to Gallup. Bill Clinton generated a 16-point bounce after the 1992 Democratic convention that carried him to the White House. Such bumps are usually short-lived, since Obama would likely regain any lost ground during the Democratic convention in Charlotte next week.
Heading into Thursday night, Romney had yet to register much of a bounce. The moving 7-day average tracked by Gallup had Obama leading him 47 percent to 46 percent, an inversion of their pre-convention standings. A rolling survey by Reuters/Ipsos during the convention had Romney shifting to a 44 percent to 42 percent lead, a predictable improvement given the infomercial environment of the convention.
For now, Romney is within the margin of error in most polls. His path to a margin of victory will likely depend on whether the economic picture worsens and his performance in the upcoming debates against Obama.
“Americans have a choice, a decision,” he said in his speech. “To make that choice, you need to know more about me and where I'd lead at our country.”
In the next few days, it will become clear whether Americans learned too little or too much about Romney, and just how much they liked his trip down memory lane.