Mitt Romney, by all accounts, is doing a better job of uniting the Republican Party than anyone would have thought possible a year ago. Earlier this month Romney became the first non-incumbent ever to win the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary back to back. Simply put, he showed that he can appeal to both conservatives and moderates in the GOP.
In Iowa, according to entrance polls, 47% of voters said they were “very conservative.” Of these, 35% voted for Santorum, more than twice as many as the 14% who voted for Romney. But the 14% was enough.
In New Hampshire, where moderates and libertarians have the most influence, 54% of respondents in CNN exit polls considered themselves conservative; only 21% as “very conservative.” While Romney may have benefited from a fragmentation of the conservative vote in Iowa, here he swept a strong plurality of Tea Party backers. And his momentum among conservatives seems to be continuing into South Carolina, where Governor Nikki Haley, queen of the Tea Party post-Michele Bachmann, endorsed Romney on December 16. Romney also held his own in Monday’s debate in South Carolina. Nationally, 59% of conservative Republicans now deem Romney an acceptable candidate.
It’s also worth noting that parts of the Republican establishment, perhaps lukewarm about John McCain in the 2008 election (due to diverging opinions issues like climate change and campaign finance reform), now definitely wants to win. Based on Karl Rove's recent intensity on Fox News alone, one gets the sense that he is in the game. Romney, unlike McCain (think South Carolina 2000), has never tangled with the Bush machine. Combined with the Haley Barbour machine from 1994 RNC days and last year’s Senate reelection, it’s hard to see what part of the establishment will not be backing Romney.
Is all this a result of Romney’s political skills? Hardly. Much of the story has to do with aversion to the direction in which Obama has taken the country – and a verdict on his failed stewardship of the economy. Consider the following: When Barack Obama was elected in ’08 and Democrats swept the Senate, they had a 13-point advantage over Republicans in party identification. Today, that advantage has basically been wiped out. Democrats stand at 30, Republicans at 27. As recently as December 15-18, Republicans were 30, Democrats 27. And the trend is noteworthy. Whereas Republican identification has stayed basically the same, Democrats have lost 10 points – from 40% to 30%.
Romney has little to do with this, but if he can unify the party in this environment – which, to repeat, he seems to be doing – Obama is in trouble. Another statistic that could be telling: In addition to “approve” and “disapprove,” Scott Rasmussen keeps track of voters who strongly approve and those who strongly disapprove of the president’s performance. On Monday the former number was 21%; the latter was 41%. This kind of intensity, underneath the president's staying steady at an approval rating of around 45%, suggests that overall approval may not be the most illuminating metric. Among conservative Republicans, Obama’s approval rating is 7%. The president is in trouble. And he knows it.
Romney does not have charisma. He does not inspire devotion or loyalty like a George W. Bush in ’04 or a Barack Obama in ’08. But with a unified Republican Party behind him, with the intense dislike of Obama in the land, he will be the next president. Not every marriage must be born of passion. The GOP’s marriage with Romney will be based on reason, prudence, as well as sentiment – appropriate to a Jane Austen novel, which many modern readers find boring, but which has its virtue. This November, it will bear fruit.
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