Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts just six years ago. Today he’s so unpopular here he’s barely bothering to campaign in the state. There are reasons for that—and they could spell doom for his presidential campaign.
Of course, none of that should take anyone by surprise. As governor, Romney showed Massachusetts that—pragmatic to the core—he was willing to say whatever was needed to advance his political career. Facing an emboldened Democratic majority in the legislature after his 2004 election debacle, Romney began to turn his attention away from Beacon Hill and toward Washington, DC. In the process, the former self-described “progressive” shifted his views on gay rights, abortion, and stem cell research to appeal to a more conservative audience.
In 2005 Romney vetoed a bill that would have expanded embryonic stem cell research even though his wife, Ann, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, had recently said she hoped that same research could help cure MS. The legislature ultimately overrode the veto. Romney would later veto an emergency contraception bill as well, only to see that one overridden, too. The growing sense that Romney viewed Massachusetts as merely a steppingstone did not go over well. By November 2005, a Suffolk University/7 News poll found that his favorability rating—47 percent a year earlier—had plummeted to 33 percent, while his unfavorability rating had rocketed up to 49 percent.
When he finally left office, even the conservative Herald editorial page was happy to see him go. “We can only imagine how much more he might have managed if he held the day job in higher esteem than as a convenient springboard for a presidential campaign,” the tabloid editorialized. Tellingly, when Romney ran for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, several prominent local Republicans, including three of the five GOP state senators, endorsed other candidates.
To explain his sudden conservative turn as governor, Romney tells a story of meeting with Douglas Melton, a Harvard stem cell researcher, and becoming sickened when he learned of the casual way human embryos are killed for science. Melton has refuted Romney’s story, saying the conversation didn’t happen at all like that—that the killing of anything never even came up. While it’s impossible to know who’s telling the truth in this instance, bending reality to fit his narrative is something Romney’s made a habit of while running for president. Just as it’s difficult to recall another governor who shifted his views so much to appeal to a bloc of voters, it’s difficult to recall a presidential candidate who has relied so much on falsehoods and out-of-context quotes.
The first sign of trouble came in an ad Romney’s campaign ran last fall, quoting Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” In reality, the clip came from the 2008 election, and Obama was actually referring to something said by a John McCain aide. A small controversy over the ad erupted, after which Fehrnstrom, Romney’s top adviser, affirmed to the press that the outright distortion was part of a calculated strategy.
Lately, Romney has taken to launching misleading attacks that tread on highly charged racial ground. Playing to a Michigan crowd in August, he said, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised.” Aside from dog-whistling to birthers, he’s been hitting Obama on welfare, launching ad campaigns falsely alleging that the president is trying to make it easier for recipients to collect free money without having to work. In reality, the Obama administration told state governments that if they wanted to experiment with new ways to fulfill the welfare system’s work requirements—ones that increased the number of people actually working—the administration would consider the requests. Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times now flatly refer to Romney’s allegations as false. Other independent fact-checkers have also discredited the attacks. But that hasn’t stopped Romney’s campaign from continuing to hit Obama on the racially fraught issue, ever-so-subtly suggesting that Obama, a black president, is trying to make it easier to give handouts to poor (read: black) people.
At the Republican National Convention in August, Ashley O’Connor, a top Romney strategist, told reporters, “Our most effective ad is our welfare ad.” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse added, “Fact-checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”