Napoleon is supposed to have said that the quality he most valued in his generals was luck. In the current race for the Republican presidential nomination, Napoleon’s favorite would clearly be Mitt Romney.
One lucky break after another has helped Romney maintain front-runner status or something close to it in polls of Republican primary voters and caucus-goers. And he needed luck to rebound from his unsuccessful run in 2008.
His strategy that cycle was slavishly modeled on George W. Bush’s strategy in 2000. Romney started off early, raised and spent lots more money than any other Republican, and sponsored his own “compassionate conservative” initiative, his Massachusetts health-care plan.
He crisscrossed Iowa, campaigning as a conservative on abortion and cultural issues. Unfortunately, that was at odds with his past record, and he was overtaken by Mike Huckabee. Then he was beaten in relatively secular, tax-hating New Hampshire by John McCain. Romney came close but was out of the race after Super Tuesday.
An interesting counterfactual that may have occurred to him: If he had ignored Iowa and run on his business record as an economic conservative, he might have won New Hampshire and the nomination. And in the financial crisis in the fall, he might have sailed past a seemingly clueless Barack Obama.
But Romney clearly learns from mistakes. This time he has raised less money, mostly ignored Iowa, and is emphasizing his business and economic expertise that — lucky for him — seems relevant in a time of economic sluggishness.
Romney has been lucky as well in the shaping of the field. The decisions of Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels not to run removed rivals who know a whole lot more about the federal budget and the looming entitlements crisis than Romney does. Each would have pressed him to take risky stands that he has deftly avoided.
Romney has been helped by the news media’s fascination with supposed possible candidates who never seemed likely to run — Sarah Palin, whose looming shadow has been growing dimmer for months, and Donald Trump, who flared up like a Roman candle and came crashing to the ground. No room for stories on Romneycare or flip-flops on some issues.
Romney has also been helped by surges of support for more conservative — they would say less establishment — candidates who did not live up to their early promise.
Michele Bachmann surged in polls in June based on good debate performances, and her victory in the Iowa straw poll August 13 ended the candidacy of Tim Pawlenty, who with blue-collar roots and two terms as governor in a Democratic state could have given Romney real competition.
Bachmann’s candidacy was immediately eclipsed by Rick Perry’s announcement that he was running. But in four debates since then, Perry has failed to live up to Republican voters’ platonic ideal of a governor of Texas — and gave Romney a high-visibility opponent he could dominate in head-to-head repartee.
In the meantime, the threat of a Chris Christie candidacy, which could have eaten into Romney’s support, turned into a boon when Christie reiterated his non-candidacy one week and endorsed Romney the next. Good luck on good luck.
Now Herman Cain has zoomed past Romney in some polls. As a conservative without political experience, he has credentials that would appear to trump Romney’s in a party whose ranks of activists have been swelled by tea partiers determined to cut back government.
But his 9-9-9 plan is under attack from other candidates, and although Cain resembles Romney in some respects — business success, failed bids for the Senate — Romney has far more in the way of serious policy advisers and proposals. He speaks with more assurance and has been able to drill down in detail, while Cain tends to repeat talking points.
Romney’s luck may run out at some point. He’s topped 25 percent in only three of 80 national polls taken this year, suggesting vulnerability in a one-on-one contest. On some issues and on basic stances, he is out of line with the median Republican voter.
But luck tends to come to those who are well prepared. Romney has learned from his mistakes in 2008, and he is effectively executing a strategy that seems in line with his experience and recorded positions. Perhaps more important, he’s shown a sense of command that none of his rivals has matched. Lucky — and something more.