The media tut-tuts about the ebbs and flows of the polls in the presidential race because – well, because that’s what the media does. But, in fact, if you look at every presidential race going back over the years when the incumbent party was defeated or almost defeated – 1948, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2004, and 2008 – most of them had some truly wild rides, many starting in September (the only real exception was 1960).
So let’s look beyond the polls and think about what Mitt Romney needs to do so that – when the polls finally stop bouncing – he lands on top. I think he needs to look very carefully at three previous presidential candidates and emulate them.
First, James K. Polk. In 1844, Polk was the first “dark horse” presidential nominee. His goal that year was to reunite the basic Jacksonian coalition that had triumphed in 1828, 1832, and 1836, but had faltered four years prior. To do that, he made four promises, all of which appealed to the majority coalition: 1. He would annex Texas. 2. He would settle the Oregon boundary dispute. 3. He would lower tariffs. 4. He would establish an independent treasury system. All of these appealed to the poor farmers in the South and West, which were the backbone of the Jacksonian Democracy. He won a narrow victory over Henry Clay that year.
Second, William McKinley. In 1896, McKinley was the GOP nominee running amidst an economic downturn much like today's. His challenger – William Jennings Bryan – basically denounced the incumbent Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, and thus set up one the first true ideological battle of the post-Civil War era. McKinley pinned his candidacy on economic growth above all else. His campaign literature trumpeted him as the “advance agent of prosperity.” When he ran for reelection in 1900, he also pushed the theme of growth, proclaiming that Republican economic policies had provided voters with a “full dinner pail.”
Third, George W. Bush. No modern presidential candidate has understood the sound-bite quality of today’s campaign quite as well as Bush did in 2000. The man never went off script, knowing full well that voters would only ever hear snippets of any one speech. So, he would give the same speech again and again, and he would answer every question from the press by swinging back to his core message. Thus, in the aggregate swing voters would know exactly what his message was.
Romney would do well to take these lessons from Polk, McKinley, and Bush. First, start with McKinley: The entire premise of the Romney candidacy must be about prosperity – not just in terms of GDP growth over the next four years, but about putting the country on a sustainable path to growth. Romney has to hammer that home everywhere and anywhere. Indeed, I doubt that McKinley – the first modern conservative – would mind so much if Romney just adopted his “advance agent of prosperity” slogan!
Next, following Polk, Romney needs to get specific. But he also must keep it short and sweet – and all of the specific points have to swing back to prosperity, with a particular eye to the coalition he is looking to build. If we follow Polk’s model of four points, then I would suggest the following for Romney:
1. He will reform the tax code. Specifically, he will cut all loopholes that the wealthy have purchased through lobbying efforts and use the money to cut taxes for small businesses and average Americans.