It took tens of millions of dollars and many months, but Mitt Romney finally beat back the mighty Rick Santorum, a whiny, little known former Senator from Pennsylania. This bears repeating: Romney needed tens of millions of dollars to beat a man who is best known as a stain. And while some stains are tough to get out, Romney should have wrapped this up months ago. The primary was a disaster for Romney's presidential hopes. His favorability ratings are lower than any modern presidential nominee entering the general election.
The problem for Romney is not that the Republican primary process lasted too long. Afterall, the presidential race started in early 2007. What's a few extra months? Romney's problem is that this race required him to go from state to state and suffer repeated humiliation at the hands of opponents (and occasionally himself). It took him many months to swat away a fly, Rick Santorum (unlike Obama, who easily dispatches flies).
Romney competed in 33 separate states. In most of these states, he argued through both TV ads and local media) that he was vastly more conservative than people like Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich. He took extreme right-wing positions on nearly every issue, positions that make George W. Bush look like Ted Kennedy (see: immigration). The problem with TV advertisements and local media exposure is that they reach all audiences of voters, including swing voters and the Democratic base. Romney spent millions to counterproductively tell swing voters in 33 states that he is not a moderate, and he traveled from state to state helping reactivate the passions of Democratic partisans.
But, Romney's ideological problems are minor compared to the damage caused by the character attacks launched by his opponents. To understand why, you need to understand how and why political attacks stick and why character attacks can be the most effective attacks.
An effective political attack requires two things:
1. A believable messenger: When Nancy Pelosi attacked Newt Gingrich in January, GOP primary voters unsurprisingly found these attacks unconvincing. Primary voters were not inclined to find her attacks credible. On the other hand, an attack on Newt Gingrich from a like-minded individual might be believable. Romney's most devastating anti-Gingrich ad was the one that mentioned that House Republicans fined him $200k for ethics violations and forced him to resign in disgrace.
2. A believable message that has been primed by earlier attacks and messaging: Put the substance of the Solyndra affair aside. There's a reason why Solyndra hasn't hurt Obama: It doesn't jive with Americans' pre-conceived image of the President. Even at Obama's lowest level of popularity, a large majority of Americans saw him as well-intentioned and honest. Republicans need to find another angle, because that one is a dead end. They keep pushing this "corrupt Chicago cronyism" angle and it strikes many Americans as ridiculous. My advice for the GOP would be to go with "well-intentioned, full of promise, but in over his head and unable to deliver." That's an attack that even resonates with the Democratic base a bit. "He's Tony Soprano!" is not.
The vicious personal attacks on Mitt Romney came from believable messengers (his fellow Republicans). They involved a believable message (that Romney has no inner core). You may disagree that this is a believable message. If so, you may at least be inclined to agree that the "liberal media" has aggressively painted Romney as soulless, and that mainstream reporters have internalized this criticism. If you'll grant me that point, then you can see how these attacks on Romney could be so damaging.
These attacks eroded Romney's standing with Republicans, and this artificially deflated his poll numbers slightly. Those numbers will boomerang back a bit when the GOP base begins to focus on Obama again. They loathe Obama. Republican elected officials long ago convinced the base that he represents the end of freedom and perhaps the end of America itself. By the time the general election comes around, their rage will summon a river of pink slime that could summon Vigo the Carpathian!
More importantly, when a credible messenger attacks a candidate's character with a message that resonates, this tends to erode their support with independents. Character attacks (if properly delivered and framed) work better than any other attacks because they transcend ideology. Liberals, moderates, and conservatives all agree: if someone's a phony, their ideology is immaterial. This is why character attacks tend to be off limits during primaries! It's also why party elites try to stop lunatics like Gingrich and Santorum from becoming serious contenders.
Most presidential candidates emerge from their primaries energized and feeling the momentum. They enjoy extremely high favorability ratings, because the preceeding month of press features dozens of stories like "Candidate X Wins!" and "Why Candidate X Won: Is it Because He's Awesome?" and "How Candidate X's Wins Validate His Entire Ideology" and "Is Candidate X the Next Reagan/JFK?". That's hardly an exaggeration. Reporters are easily swept up in momentum.
Romney hasn't enjoyed that bump. His victory is not a triumph. His path to the nomination has been more like this:
Having failed to stockpile goodwill and high favorability, it will be difficult for Romney to serve as a credible messenger when he attacks Obama. Romney is one of the least popular politicians in America. Like it or not, Romney is a man who a great deal of Americans suspect may be completely full of it. GOP partisans can deny this, but the Romney campaign surely knows it. They will have to work hard to change the momentum, and you can bet that they are forumating a strategy as we speak.