Romney's Problem

There was distressing news for Mitt Romney in the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. Yes, the poll showed that he was dead even with President Obama nationally, both men garnering the support of 47% of the electorate. But, while 75% of Obama supporters said that their choice was based on their support for the president and 23% said they were supporting Obama primarily because they were against his opponent, only 37% of those who said they would vote for Romney said their choice was based on support for him, while a stunning 59% said they were primarily opposed to giving Obama a second term.

In one sense, this result should not surprise. Mr. Romney has focused his campaign not on his own credentials, but on the sour state of the economy and President Obama’s responsibility for that sour state. He is running as the anti-Obama candidate pure and simple. Whether the strategy will work depends, ultimately on what you believe about human nature. Are people more likely to be motivated by their fears or their hopes? Are people more responsive to negative campaigns than to positive messaging. If the GOP primaries proved anything, especially to the victor’s campaign, it is that negative campaigning works. Everytime a rival candidate took the lead in the polls, Mr. Romney’s campaign, and its affiliated SuperPAC, dumped millions of dollars worth of negative advertising into the race, eviscerating the rival. Romney ran precious few positive ads during the primaries, but ran plenty of ads attacking Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Maybe it will work again.

But, a presidential race is not like any other kind of race, especially one in which you are challenging an incumbent. In a congressional race, or a presidential primary, many voters do not know much about the candidates and if what little they know comes from negative advertising, they are likely to oppose the person so attacked. But, everyone knows President Obama and most American tend to like him, regardless of how they assess his job performance. Many, if not most, understand that the economic difficulties we face today is still largely the result of forces beyond the control of any president and they blame the avaricious titans of Wall Street for those difficulties. Mr. Romney, former venture capitalist extraordinaire, is not the ideal candidate to harness that rage against Wall Street just as he has proven to be such an uncertain trumpet on the issue of health care reform.

Indeed, the next several weeks, during which Mr. Romney will select his running mate and accept the nomination of his party’s convention in Tampa, will require Romney to introduce himself to the electorate in ways he has not had to do so far. Democrats are foolish to underestimate the Romney campaign’s intelligence. A clue to that intelligence is revealed in an article by John-Charles Duffy at Religion & Politics, the online journal published by the Danforth Center at Washington University in St. Louis. (Full Disclosure: I am on R & P’s editorial advisory board but played no role in the editing of Mr. Duffy’s piece.)

Duffy looks at how Romney changed his strategy towards evangelical voters from the time he ran four years ago and this election cycle. Instead of trying to suggest that Mormons and Evangelicals were so much alike, telling audiences that he accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, a phrase common in evangelical circles but not in Mormon ones, Romney came to understand that this was precisely what drove evangelicals nuts. They do not believe that Mormons and evangelical Christians believe the same doctrines – they don’t – and they worried that a Romney candidacy that tried to suggest as much would serve to legitimize Mormon belief. This they could not countenance. So, for the 2012 race, Romney abandoned this approach. Indeed, he went out of his way to acknowledge the differences of faith that exist between Mormons and evangelicals. During his commencement address at Liberty University in May, Romney did not identify himself as a Christian and acknowledged the different beliefs that animated the two conservative religious traditions.

Throughout the primaries, as Duffy points out and I argued at the time, evangelicals did not support Romney but that had as much to do with concerns about his commitment to conservative social values as it did with any doubts about his religion. The problem was not Mormonism but Massachusetts. The problem for Romney with the GOP base is still Massachusetts, which is where Duffy’s piece at R&P meets the Washington Post/ABC News poll. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, the whole country was reminded of the fact that Romney did something very similar while serving as Governor of the Bay State, usually with old clips of Rick Santorum denouncing Romney on that score.

The question facing the Romney campaign now is how they can energize the GOP base and if animosity towards President Obama will be enough to get their voters to the polls. To energize the base, he needs to throw out some red meat, the diet to which the Tea Party has grown accustomed. But, every time he throws out such red meat, he risks alienating the centrist swing voters who will decide the election. Mr. Obama faces a similar challenge with the Democratic base, especially its fundraisers. Whatever hopes I have entertained about the administration coming around on the HHS mandate have been deeply checked by the fact that, for two months in a row, Romney has raised more money than Obama. Even if he wanted to reach an agreement that would satisfy the USCCB and the Catholic Health Association, it is unlikely that such an agreement would get Catholics to open their checkbooks and donate. Organized women’s groups have long lists of issue-oriented women who are already writing checks and Obama will need to keep them writing those checks if he is not going to be outspent by a prohibitive margin.

You can bet the Romney campaign has spent a lot of money and time on polling and focus groups. The Romney who is revealed in his vice presidential choice and in his convention speech will have to find a way to both energize the base and reach out to swing voters, and that is no easy task. But, it will not be enough to demonize the president. Swing voters may wonder what happened to all the hope and change Obama foolishly promised in 2008, but they still like the man himself and may grow tired of the unrelenting attacks on him. Nor will they turn over the keys to the White House to someone who they do not like or trust. In 1980, of course, Reagan and Carter were tied in most polls until the final week. Reagan’s debate performance reassured voters they could entrust him with the keys to the Oval Office. Romney needs to find a way to establish that kind of trust but, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Romney is no Reagan.

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