Romney can count, but . . .

Published 3:52 pm Thursday, March 29, 2012

Two words help explain why Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008: organization and engagement. Mitt Romney’s team has closely studied Obama’s model in setting up his campaign structure. But the team has failed badly when it comes to inspiring voters, and that shortfall could make the difference if and when Romney faces off against Obama in the fall.

      The first lesson Obama’s experience teaches is to organize everywhere, win delegates in remote contests, don’t concede an inch. During the 2008 delegate hunt, Obama scored a bigger net gain in Idaho than Hillary Clinton did in Ohio. This spring, Romney dominated places like Puerto Rico, Guam and even the Northern Marianas.

      The second lesson is to pay attention to the rules. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum failed to make the ballot entirely in Virginia, and Santorum’s crew screwed up in both Ohio and Illinois, preventing him from competing for delegates in several congressional districts. “Vote for Romney — He Knows How to Count” might not be the season’s most inspiring slogan, but it’s a valid claim.

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      When it comes to engagement, however, Romney has been far less successful, and some of his problems seem unfixable. The man has been running for president for five years. He’s had plenty of time to convince voters to fall in love with him, and they refuse to do so. He simply lacks the warmth and magnetism that Obama displayed four years ago, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll get a personality transplant between now and November.

      It’s a quality that goes by many names — charisma, connectedness, empathy — but whatever you call it, only the greatest politicians have it. Bill Clinton had tons of it, his wife not so much. Jack and Bobby Kennedy radiated that special glow, but their brother Ted seldom did. George Bush the Younger generated far more electricity than his father.

      No matter how hard he tries, Romney’s personality is more night-light than spotlight, and that flaw showed up again in Illinois, even while he was winning the primary there. “Mitt Romney is a sound individual and a good businessman, but from a sheer lovability or enthusiasm standpoint, he’s not the world’s most gregarious guy,” Kirk Dillard, a Republican state senator, told The New York Times. Former Gov. Jim Edgar, also a Republican, said of Romney: “I haven’t detected, down in the ranks, that kind of enthusiasm. … There just doesn’t yet seem to be the interest.”

      In Ohio, the nation’s most accurate bellwether state, Republican primary voters were asked which candidate “best understands average Americans’ problems?” Only 22 percent picked Romney.

Engagement is not just about emotions, however. It’s also about understanding the new-media universe, where online tools empower voters to exchange information with one another and think of themselves as active participants in the political process.

      Team Obama knows it can never duplicate the euphoria of four years ago, but it can duplicate the structures and systems that enabled the campaign to utilize the energy and enthusiasm of supporters. And that part of the game plan is already well under way.

     Last week, for example, the Obama campaign launched a 17-minute, feel-good video highlighting the president’s accomplishments and character. The video is posted on Obama’s own YouTube channel, and anyone visiting the site is given many options for further participation — share the video with friends, sign up as a volunteer, donate money.

“This year, it’s all about getting your message into those trusted networks because everyone is suspicious of politicians,” Darrell West of the Brookings Institution told the Times. “It’s hard to be persuasive through a direct advertisement. But if you can get people to share videos, it adds a degree of credibility because a friend is endorsing it. People will take it more seriously.”

      There’s a larger point as well, which comes back to engagement. People will take their own roles more seriously if they feel wanted by a campaign, if they are given ways to participate, if they acquire — to use one of Team Obama’s favorite phrases — a “sense of ownership” about the outcome.

      Sharing a video is only one option offered by the Obama website. Send in your predictions for the college basketball tournament and compete against the president. Register for a drawing that will pick three people to have dinner with him. And, of course, give money. Last month, 348,000 people donated to the Obama campaign, and the average contribution was $59.04.

      Romney can count, but can he connect? He can organize, but can he energize? He can speak, but can he listen?

(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at