What Mitt the Movie Tells Us About the Republican Party

One of the stranger, if minor, political developments of 2014 has been the return of Mitt Romney to the political consciousness of the US. Romney has been all but invisible since his resounding loss to Barack Obama in November of 2012. However, the release of the campaign documentary Mitt on Netflix, a poll that shows Romney, largely due to name recognition, leading in New Hampshire among potential 2016 candidates, and his recent statements against raising the minimum wage and in support of the Sochi Olympics have all raised Romney's profile more than any time since the election.

The campaign documentary Mitt is interesting because it shows a more in depth side of Romney than was seen by most people during his campaign. The film shows Romney to be a decent man who is completely devoted to his supportive and loving family, and not burdened with a shred of concern for poor people or those not as fortunate as him. This is, of course, no surprise as it confirms what many Americans probably thought about Romney already. One of the more striking things about the movie is that political strategists, analysts, pollsters and the like are not only almost entirely missing from the movie, but are rarely by the candidate or his family. Consultants usually play an important role in these movies. Jim Carville, probably even more than Bill Clinton, for example, was the star of The War Room, the classic documentary about the 1992 election

Deliberately or not, this gives the impression that the Romney campaign was a seat of the pants operation run by a smart man and his family who did not have the necessary expertise for a national campaign. This was most likely a cinematic ploy by the film maker, Greg Whiteley, aimed at demonstrating how much Romney depended upon his family, rather than political professionals and experts. It is a point that is made in one of the first scenes in the movies when the family is watching the 2012 election returns and seem genuinely surprised that they are losing.

This is significant not only because it reveals something about Romney himself, but also because it demonstrates one of the major differences between the two parties as well as some of the collateral damage of the Republican Party's anti-science position. In 2012, the Obama campaign used very sophisticated research and targeting drawing on psychology, marketing, targeting, new media and various other quantitative methodologies. This allowed them to put different winning coalitions together in different battleground states while micro-targeting swing voters. The Romney campaign, and not just according to the movie, did little of that kind of work seeming to rely more on their self confidence and unshakeable belief that Barack Obama was destroying the country. That is hopeful thinking, not a campaign plan.

There was a time, not that long ago, where the best operatives and strategists in American politics where clearly on the Republican side. Lee Atwater ran circles around the Dukakis campaign in 1988. As recently as a decade ago Karl Rove and Frank Luntz crafted and implemented sophisticated and data driven strategies for President George W. Bush. This is a stark contrast to the Romney campaign which believed its own methodologically flawed polls, did not effectively use newer communication tools and thought their victory was inevitable because Obama was some kind of socialist.

This is not just an observation about why Romney lost in 2012, but explains what has happened to a party where certainty and partisan inflexibility have not only become more important than governing or problem solving, but have been elevated as values that trump analytical rigor our sound strategic thinking. The Republican Party has become one where certainty and faith are among the most cherished values of both the leadership and the base. The same is true of the Democratic Party, but to a much smaller degree. President Obama's almost freakish commitment to the concept of consequence, for example, stands in stark contrast to his predecessor's incessant boasting about his certainty. The leap between being surprised on Election Night in 2012 and believing climate change is a hoax is not that big. In both cases, eschewing scientific approaches leads to fundamental misunderstandings of reality. In 2012 it helped cost Mitt Romney the presidency. In the policy arena the consequences for the anti-science approach could be much higher.