Mitt Romney’s quest for conservative acceptance.
MITT ROMNMEY ENDURED MONTHS of slings and arrows from his Republican primary opponents as he persevered to the nomination, but his success in November may depend on refuting Bonnie Raitt. One of the singer-songwriter’s early 1990s comeback hits was a sad, slow song called “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The ballad was inspired by a news report about a man who had been arrested for shooting at his girlfriend’s car. At his trial he informed the judge, “I learned, Your Honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.”
That may well be true of a woman, but what about a political party? While Romney isn’t likely to do anything as rash as the jilted lover behind the song, he could definitely use some of the GOP’s love to go along with its presidential nomination. A March Gallup poll tells the story: only 35 percent of Republicans said they were “enthusiastic” about Romney and fully 19 percent said they would either vote for Barack Obama or stay at home on election day.
Four years earlier, Gallup found that 47 percent of Republicans described themselves as enthusiastic about John McCain while 14 percent said they would either vote for Obama or sit on their hands in the general election. Before a woman from Wasilla, Alaska, came to his aid, McCain was thought to be about as bad as it could get from the perspective of Republican base enthusiasm. Yet his numbers pre-Sarah Palin were better than Romney’s now.
Even as Romney racked up primary victories, the exit polls showed cause for concern. Evangelicals and Tea Party sympathizers, as well as Republicans looking for a “true conservative,” regularly voted against him, sometimes in large numbers. In some Southern states where such voters are a majority of the GOP primary electorate, Romney finished third. In Iowa, only 1 percent of caucus-goers who preferred a true conservative voted for Romney, a sixth place showing—and that’s in a state he was initially believed to have won.
Romney’s campaign skills improved as the primaries went on, but the process unfolded in a way that deepened this conservative discontent. Romney’s main challengers were strong enough to keep him from wrapping up the nomination early, but too weak to genuinely threaten his frontrunner status. The result was that conservatives who preferred Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul were constantly reminded that they disliked Romney yet were impotent to stop him.
THERE IS ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE old habits will die hard. Evangelical and Tea Party activists say privately that there is little enthusiasm for Romney among their supporters. Endorsements from prominent conservative figures, ranging from Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida (the latter a potential Romney running mate), emphasize the imperative of defeating Obama above Romney’s own merits.
“The tea party is not going to coalesce around Romney,” Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips bluntly told the Daily Caller. “Most of us will vote for Romney, but we will not be out there with signs for him or in his campaign.” Surveys on the Tea Party Nation website suggested that 25 percent might not even vote for the Republican nominee. That number probably won’t hold—remember the polls showing Republican-turned-Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr winning 6 to 10 percent of the vote in 2008?—but there may be a domino effect.
Voters who normally give money to Republican campaigns may only volunteer. People who volunteer may only vote. Generally reliable GOP voters may stay home. This matters because 2012 may be shaping up to be like 2004. The electorate was ready to part with the incumbent president (George W. Bush) if the opposition party could present a credible alternative, but the American people weren’t necessarily hell bent on changing course. What resulted was a closely fought election in which each party worked to turn out its base.
Bush was able to squeak through to a second term, but John Kerry only needed to do slightly better to win. Three out of every four votes for Bush were cast by white evangelicals. Romney will likely get a comparable percentage of the evangelical vote, but can he reproduce anything like their 2004 turnout? “While he will get close to three quarters of those evangelicals who do turn out to vote,” predicted RedState.com’s Erick Erickson, “he must ensure they do turn out.”
ALL IS NOT LOST, HOWEVER. Obama must also replicate an unprecedented past performance: he’ll need turnout among minorities and younger voters to approach the levels of four years ago. He also needs to carry the youth vote by the same margins as when he was a fresh face with no responsibility for the dismal post-collegiate jobs market. This basic political arithmetic is what reduced the leader of the free world to pandering to college students. Obama has been traveling to campuses in swing states and leading the coeds in chants of “Don’t double my rate!” (This battle cry was in reference to a pending Stafford loan rate hike.)
Remember James Carville’s line about the economy, stupid? In the first quarter of 2012, it grew by just 2.2 percent. The Obama stimulus package was supposed to have produced 4 percent annual growth by now. Instead GDP grew by 1.7 percent in 2011 and is likely to expand by less than 3 percent this year. In the first quarter of 1992, when Carville helped Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush by running against the “worst economy in fifty years,” the economy grew by 4.5 percent. What if the country continues along this path for the rest of the year? “If you plug those numbers into the forecasting model created by Ray Fair of Yale University,” writes the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis, “Obama would get just 48.4 percent of the two-party vote, a decisive loss to Mitt Romney.”
Even if the economy picks up, Obama is no sure thing. He won 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008. That was with the advantages of a nearly flawless campaign, a floundering opponent, an unpopular Republican incumbent, a fawning news media, and no record of his own. With the political climate transformed radically, it is not unreasonable to assume—as even most favorable polls suggest—that Obama will get a smaller percentage this time around. That gives the president little margin for error.
INDEPENDENTS WILL NATURALLY be critical for both candidates, and Obama will be hard pressed to duplicate his 2008 showing among swing voters. But Romney will still have to solve, or at least mitigate, his base problem. McCain did so by choosing Palin as his running mate. Few Republicans in Washington think Romney will go this route. That’s not Romney’s temperament, and he is said to be sensitive to the perception that the Palin pick ultimately backfired. Romney is also starting out with better election prospects than McCain, so it is early to throw a Hail Mary pass.
Romney reached out to conservative organizations and institutions before launching his first presidential campaign. (Ironically, the Massachusetts health care plan that loomed as such a large problem this time around was at least partially a result of that outreach.) He will do so again, now that other more movement-friendly alternatives are out of the way. But last time this strategy produced only limited results with grassroots conservatives. Endorsements from popular radio talk show hosts and magazines like National Review failed to establish him as the undisputed conservative alternative to McCain. Relatively little of that appeal seemed to carry over to his second campaign, when he was the candidate of choice for many former McCain voters.
Maybe it had something to do with Romney’s technique. While wooing the right during his first presidential campaign, Romney often came on too strong. He positioned himself as the “three legged stool,” a full-spectrum conservative on economic, social, and national security issues, which filled a vacuum in the GOP field but didn’t comport well with his Massachusetts record. Appealing to gun owners, Romney talked about being a “rodent and rabbit hunter,” having “hunted those kinds of varmints…more than two times” since he was fifteen.