Politico’s Jonathan Martin reports on Mitt Romney’s newest campaign commercial, “Ocean.” The new ad comes amid many reports of how much money Romney and all the other campaigns are spending. The breathlessness of the reporting doesn’t allow the key questions to be asked: “What are the candidates getting for their dollars?” and “Is the campaign hitting its targets in contributions and expenditures?” In Romney’s case we know he’s patiently built a small lead in Iowa and New Hampshire, and from “Ocean” we get evidence that he’s implementing a new step in a carefully conceived plan and doing so with the sort of innovative appeal that those who have observed his business life expected from the first day of the campaign.
“Ocean” is interesting on a number of levels. First, its substance –a concern for the degraded culture in which American children grow up– is powerful, and not just for Republican primary voters, but for all parents and people who love kids. Second, its visual approach is unique for the cycle. Over the decades the presidential television spot has become more and more direct, and less and less interesting. “Ocean’s” got a chance at being memorable in the way very very few ads turn out to be. Finally, the ad reminds people that among Romney’s achievements is a wonderful family, and that he truly does believe the words he speaks.
The ad appears two days before Romney speaks at the Lincoln Day Dinner in El Paso County, Colorado. El Paso County is home to, among other groups, James Dobson’s Focus on the Family and Young Life, two of the region’s many evangelical organizations. The message of “Ocean” is one that every evangelical can agree with and applaud. Martin speculates that “this ad is yet more evidence of Romney trying to ‘close the deal’ with social conservatives,” but while it certainly helps remind conservative voters of Romney’s core values, I expect this theme to remain front and center throughout the general campaign if Romney is the nominee. The argument about the culture’s decline and its impact on children is one that media elites regularly hoot at but which always resonates with soccer moms and coaching dads. Romney’s putting out a notice that this will be an issue for his campaign, and seeing their agenda as part of the roll out of Romney’s agenda is very reassuring to many social conservatives.
As is the sense that this campaign has a plan. Visit the Romney website if you haven’t done so recently. Along with Rudy’s, Hillary’s and Obama’s, it is quite obviously the product of a campaign that understands the virtual campaign as central to success in 2008. (Fred Thompson’s unofficial campaign has a clunky site that underscores the disadvantage of not being a full fledged candidate in a race that has been full fledged since January.) A presidential primary campaign is not a bus ride with reporters along or a series of press conferences, but a short-lived $100 million dollar sprint which is already about half over. Iowa voters caucus on Monday, January 14, 2008 and by midnight on Super Duper Tuesday, February 5, both parties will have their nominees. To get to the nomination, the candidates have to have built and implemented a complex and comprehensive plan, and Romney’s team gives every indication of having done just that. When Romney loaned himself $6.5 million in Q2, I assumed it was because that’s what the plan called for to have met its goals, and that his personal financial commitment is to assure that the plan is implemented at every stage. Reviewing the ruins of the McCain campaign and you read accounts of successive blueprints drawn up and torn up in a sort of a carnival of lousy planning. (Here’s another article from Martin on that subject.) All you hear coming out of Team Romney is the message, from the candidate or his many surrrogates. That’s the sound of a campaign running on all its cylinders.
Last week a friend in Colorado, a very successful businessman long active in Rocky Mountain politics, e-mailed me that after close study he was going to send money to Romney as the best chance the GOP had in 2008. I suspect that is happening again and again as the Fred boomlet begins to flatten against the realities of what is necessary in 2008 –energy and extraordinary discipline. The Rudy-Romney race is far from over, and Thompson still could show the sort of planning a campaign in the new millennium requires, but the time for the Tennessee senator to get in and get organized is very short.
Why? Consider that when Florida changed its primary to January 29, in reality it announced that absentee ballots would be available long before that, and that “early voting” in the Sunshine State would get underway on January 15 –the day after the Iowa caucus results are in. California’s absentee ballots will be available from early January forward, and 47% of the ballots cast in the last California primary –June, 2006– were by absentee. Building an absentee ballot “chase” program is expensive, and all of those ballots in all of those states will be greatly impacted by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire, which increases the importance of those states beyond their already high value in the 2004 cycle.
All of which suggests that the strategic contributor –the donor who held back to see what happened early on and which candidate put together the best team and rolled out the most coherent plan while demonstrating in the early debates the stage presence and the early commercials the innovation that would be necessary to get to the main event– might still pick Rudy on the basis of the national polls, but the donor who is really interested in making one contribution to the one candidate who will get the nomination and possibly the White House is looking very hard at the very professionally run Romney campaign.