Mitt Romney appears to have been a smart and effective leader in both business and government. Much of his political history suggests he is more centrist and moderate than the conservative candidate he has campaigned as recently. One of the big critiques of Romney has been the charge that he doesn’t believe many of the things he says to try to win over conservative voters. If that is the case, then there is only one conclusion: The Republican Party is Mitt Romney’s greatest weakness in the upcoming presidential election.
“A new breed of conservative zealot.” The GOP is becoming increasingly characterized by its most conservative elements. The Economist recently observed that following its 2010 election victory, the Republican Party brought “a new breed of conservative zealot” to Washington that is “destroying the middle ground and making legislating next to impossible.” This failure to legislate is one of the reasons why this Congress has some of the lowest approval ratings in history.
While there's plenty of blame to go around, polling suggests a growing contempt among the electorate for the more conservative views espoused by the Republican Party. Overall views of the Republican Party have fallen over the past year, a trend exacerbated by the hard-fought primary race. Support for the Tea Party, by far the most vocal and enthusiastic movement within the Republican Party, has stagnated throughout the primary race while interest has fallen. This trend is seen most dramatically among independent women, and racial and ethnic minorities continue to disapprove of the Tea Party in high numbers. The GOP is seen as the more extreme party, and the growing prominence of the extreme elements within the party have caused a dramatic shift away from mainstream views, alienating large swaths of independent moderates.
A polarizing primary. The Republican primary has not been kind to the Romney presidential campaign. The extreme conservative messages that were touted by the leading candidates over the past few months were anathema to the mainstream views of the political center. While the Republicans continue to do well on economic and budgetary issues, social issues such as abortion and contraception, college education, immigration, and the role of religion in American politics have all blurred the coherence of the Republican economic message.
The main culprit of this unkindness was the unlikely success of former Senator Rick Santorum in winning over evangelicals and social conservatives. Santorum’s constant questioning of Romney’s conservative bona fides forced the Romney campaign to tack further to the right in order to assuage the concerns of the conservative base, with Romney going so far as to dub himself “severely conservative.” Unfortunately for the Romney camp, those that they meant to win over with such rhetoric (conservatives) remain stubbornly unconvinced, and those they rather hoped would not tune in (moderate independents) were turned off by it.
Perhaps as a result, Romney’s favorability has plummeted over the past few months. Recent polls have shown Obama leading Romney by 19 points in overall favorability, with Romney receiving historically unfavorable marks for a presumptive candidate of 47% (favorable: 35%). The shift in views on Romney is especially significant among independent women voters in swing states: where Romney previously held a 5 point advantage, Obama is now 14 points ahead.
The under-reported side to this story is that even among independent men in swing states, Obama has gained significant ground: an 11 point Romney lead has completely dissolved and Obama now holds a slim lead of 1 point. Among Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in America, Romney is 40 points behind President Obama, despite dissatisfaction among Hispanic voters over the increase in deportations during the current administration.
An anchor at the top of the ticket? Unsurprisingly, based on these numbers, Romney isn’t doing any favors for the Republican Party, either. An uninteresting and uninspiring candidate at the top of the ticket will depress voter turnout in general and has the potential to negatively affect congressional races — races which could be far more significant in determining the policy direction the country takes in the coming years. Recent generic Congressional election poll results show that the Republicans enjoy an advantage of 3.7% over Democrats nationally, but these numbers could be negatively affected by Romney’s low favorability.
With 7 of the 10 open senate seats up for grabs formerly held by Democrats, Republicans have a fighting chance at taking the Senate while also holding the House, if only by relatively slim margins in both. However, the unappealing Mitt Romney could dampen turnout for Republicans nationally and hurt their chances of dramatically shifting the Congressional make up, as they did in the 2010 midterm elections.
Turnout in this Republican primary has at times been historically low. This is an early sign that, even while Republicans are enthusiastic about the opportunity to vote President Obama out of office, this enthusiasm does not extend to their chosen nominee. A weak primary turnout combined with historically low favorability and a strong performance by an under-funded traditionalist conservative challenger spells worry for Romney’s chances in the general election. It seems clear that Romney must move away from the extreme views of today’s Republican Party to win the election this fall.
A Man of All Mindsets. Indeed, the Romney campaign appears to be making incremental moves to the center, re-explaining his positions to moderate independents in a way that is less alienating, while reminding his base just how repugnant they already think another four years of an Obama presidency would be. This might not be enough, however, to energize the base or win independents.
In another time, Romney’s natural technocratic pragmatism might have been seen as a strength, but today’s GOP expects nothing less than strict adherence to conservative principles in their candidates. Unfortunately for Romney, while the campaign might still be able to reposition the candidate on issues in a way that does not resemble a complete flip-flop, it will be quite difficult to sell voters on a ‘re-repackaged Romney.’ For all the success Mitt Romney has had as a businessman, this will be the hardest sell of his life.