NORFOLK, Virginia — Mitt Romney’s long slow march toward picking a vice president has been a carefully-planned marvel of technical political execution, leaving operatives in both political camps impressed at the candidate’s use of the process to divert from bad news, to rally supporters, draw local press coverage in key states — and, of course, raise money.
Many Romney’s aides remained in the dark about the vice presidential selection during the day Friday, but fell silent Friday evening when the campaign announced, in an 11:08 p.m. email, that the announcement would come in this Virginia port city Saturday.
But that didn't stop them from ginning up speculation about the timing and the identity of the selection. The campaign has sent ten emails to supporters in as many days about the as-yet-to-be-complete “America’s Comeback Team.”
“We never miss an opportunity to take advantage of an opportunity,” senior adviser Kevin Madden told BuzzFeed.
Presidential campaigns have, at times, been frustrated by the fevered media swirl around that most prized of commodities, an unknown, high-profile fact, and have treated the media’s hunger for trivia with disdain. Romney’s aides, by contrast, have embraced that swarm, and played it to maximum effect. The campaign has used Drudge Report headlines floating buzzy-but-unlikely like Condoleeza Rice and David Petraeus to end news cycles about Bain Capital and Romney’s difficult foreign trip. (The campaign denies being the source, though campaign manager Matt Rhoades is an old associate of Matt Drudge.) Veep-picker Beth Myers tweeted the names of 13 short-listers as headlines swirled over Romney’s gaffe criticizing the preparations for the London Olympics.
And so despite intense secrecy around the real selection process, the campaign has done little to tamp down coverage of its selection process.
“This is the last cord that we have to yank you guys with,” joked one Romney aide.
The wholehearted embrace of process is a strategic choice that illuminates campaign decision not engage deeply either on the candidate’s record or on a range of policy issues. Process is standing in for more traditional campaign topics. To some, the tactical success belays a weakness in the Romney campaign’s frustrated messaging operation: they are selling the horse race, rather than their candidate. Indeed, they appear to be using the veepstakes as a stalling tactic in a pre-convention period dominated by trading opposition research and negative ads.
Democrats contend that Romney may be seeing some momentary benefit in the veepstakes game, but that the weeks-long process isn’t moving poll numbers. It’s a “shiny object shell game,” said one Democratic operative.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have seized the process to hijack the narrative, taking advantage of the base's indifference to the media game to raise the pressure for a movement conservative choice, Rep. Paul Ryan.
The reality of the summer, though, is that speculative stories about Romney’s potential running mates are occupying headline space and local news segments on a daily basis. And that’s just the way the Romney campaign likes it. Time spent on VP coverage, in their view, is time taken away from attacks on Romney’s business record and middling polling numbers— not to mention that everyone, party affiliation aside, loves a good horse race.
“As a campaign, we're always looking for opportunities to engage voters as their interest grows and their level of attention starts to reach its zenith,” he added. “This is one of those periods of the campaign where more and more folks are tuning in and paying attention to what can be viewed as a very important decision by Governor Romney about what his presidency could look like.”
The campaign has deployed an army of VP contenders to provide local cover for Romney when he’s out of state — or even out of the country. Most have crisscrossed the country to speak at fundraisers, with the prospect of facetime with a future vice president motivating donors to shell out the cash.
On Facebook, the Romney page has seen four 100,000-plus-follower days in the past two-weeks as the campaign has stoked speculation that the selection is imminent.
The campaign’s “Mitt’s VP” app, which promises to notify supporters of the selection, garnered 200,000 downloads in the first two days, as Politico first reported. The app drives supporters to turn over their email addresses and phone numbers — which are valuable even after the app is a thing of the past.
Another aide bragged about the campaign’s ability to book surrogates around the country, setting off days of ultimately meaningless tealeaf reading.
“It’s funny. We send someone out and you write about it, but it doesn’t mean anything,” the aide said, noting the surrogate and scheduling teams have no idea who may get picked.
One Democratic politico close to the Obama campaign marveled at the Romney campaign’s deployment of VP contenders as surrogates.
“They’re bringing in money and they’re getting great local coverage. You can’t ask for much more than that,” the Democrat said.
Some Republicans, meanwhile, were crowing.
“This is the best press the Romney campaign has managed for weeks,” one GOP operative said operative said.