MANSFIELD, Ohio — With just over 48 hours until polls close, many Republicans are concluding that they have done the best they could have done to win the 2012 presidential election
Mitt Romney has been, in the home stretch, the best Mitt Romney he could be, and as good a general election candidate as the party has fielded at least since George W. Bush’s first campaign. He has flip-flopped, yes, but his flips have taken him toward palatable general election positions. The Republican Party infrastructure has recovered from its years in the wilderness under Michael Steel, and put together a passable field operation and a gangbusters fundraising one. And a constellation of Republican outside groups have raised and spent more money than anyone imagined they could.
Now, while there are no shortage of criticisms of the campaign — Romney’s bad summer, the inefficiencies of SuperPAC spending — there is a sense on the right that Mitt Romney has a decent shot at victory — something unimaginable six months ago when he was down in the polls and struggling with the aftermath of a bitter GOP primary.
“I think in the end he did very well and that Obama had inherent characteristic and demographic advantages,” said one Republican operative close to the Romney campaign. “Overall he ran a good race.”
“If you remember Mitt from 2007 he was terrible,” the Republican said.
Others are blunter. A conservative operative deeply involved with the web of outside groups spending heavily on Romney’s behalf expressed frustration recently at the failure of the flood of money being spent to move the dial.
“You keep throwing money at the problem and it just doesn’t resolve,” he said a few weeks ago of the ongoing efforts to damage the president of the United States with expensive ad campaigns.
After the storm, the same operative remarked, “Obama is just the luckiest man that ever lived.”
The consensus in the Republican political class that the party has done its best has specific consequences. The scorched-earth attacks on President Obama that began in the summer of 2009, and the move of the “Birther” movement from the fringe to the center of Republican politics soon after the 2008 election, reflected the deep disappointment with John McCain’s failure to launch searing attacks on the Democrat. Romney’s strong finish will help unite the party behind him in victory — but it may also mean that, in defeat, the party will need to look for a new kind of answer.
There is little doubt that the conservative movement has the GOP firmly in its hands. After a Romney defeat, movement favorites like Rep. Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio will be the party’s leaders, and the occasional speculation that Republican “soul-searching” could take the party back leftward seems pure fantasy. But the failure to defeat a weakened incumbent would also suggest that the current Republican coalition, and its dependence on ever-higher margins in the shrinking constituency of white men, cannot hold. (Others may write the loss off to a freak hurricane, and move on.)
In the shorter term, however, the consensus that Romney has run a decent campaign may at least shield the candidate and his aides from the wrath of their fellow Republicans, and it is not without self-interest that they are making that case emphatically in these final days.
“We’re running the best field program we’ve ever run in Ohio,” maintained one Ohio Romney campaign worker. “And we’re doing better than we thought we’d be doing here a few months ago.”
Indeed, across swing states, aides and party operatives say they believe Romney is doing the best he could under the circumstances — being a rich, former private equity executive, with a penchant for massaging his positions on issues to win an election.
“We were never going to have the Obama groundswell of support,” said a Boston-based aide, “this is how we were always going to win, if we are going to win, and I believe we will win — close.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been missteps — there’ve been many. Romney’s surreptitiously taped dismissal of 47% of Americans and his harsh rhetoric on immigration — his support for “self-deportation” are among them. But they’ve been made by a candidate who Republicans knew was far from perfect, and only one really sticks in party workers’ craws.
“With hindsight being 20/20, the auto bailout seems to be the most preventable thing,” said the operative. “They could’ve dealt with it months ago, but still hard to imagine him even being FOR the bailout given the political environment. So in that sense it was going to be a problem regardless.”
And while there’s little doubt that many Republican insiders, looking at public polling are bracing for a narrow defeat, many can also see the chance of that pleasantest of surprises, a Romney victory.
“I want Romney to get the credit he deserves if he wins this thing,” tweeted conservative blogger Dan Riehl. “Fair to say, he’s performed better than many expected.”