Mitt Romney's messages on taxes, foreign policy, and social issues are
perfectly attuned to mainstream Republicans. His campaign events attract
upscale Republican crowds filled with professionals (both men and women),
businessmen, and middle-class strivers. They're precisely the people pollsters
refer to as "likely voters." The Romney crowds resemble those of
George Bush senior in 1988, and Bush went on to win the Republican nomination
and the presidency. To update the Bush analogy, Romney as a presidential
candidate makes one think of what George W. Bush, the son, might have been like
if he'd studied harder at Harvard Business School
and stayed in New England.
Romney now bills himself as a "full spectrum" conservative. What
he means is that he reflects the views of economic, foreign policy, and social
conservatives. As such, he comes close to identifying himself as a 21st-century
version of Ronald Reagan. And indeed Romney may be--but only on paper and in
the minds of his strategists.
There's a painful truth about Romney's candidacy: Republicans in general and
conservatives in particular are resisting him in droves. This was first
suggested in poll after poll that found Romney stuck in the high 20s. And it
was confirmed by his dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses, in which he captured only a
sliver of the conservative vote and roughly a quarter of the Republican vote
Here's the profile of a Romney voter in Iowa: upper middle class, urban, someone who
thinks a candidate's religion shouldn't matter. That's a pretty narrow
constituency, and not only in Iowa.
To win the Republican nomination, Romney has to reach well beyond that core.
The voters he needs are the ones Mike Huckabee, the guitar-strumming Baptist
preacher from Arkansas, grabbed to win in Iowa. And they're the
same ones who earlier rallied behind Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Their
profile: lower middle class, rural, evangelical Christian.
Romney won't attract them by generating excitement--for the simple reason
that he's incapable of generating excitement. His speeches are solid and
forward-looking and serious and strike all the conservative notes. They qualify
as thoughtful, and they stir a polite form of enthusiasm. But excitement? No.
He'll have to leave that to others.
Nor is Romney in a position to artfully change his positions on issues. He
moved to the right on social issues--abortion, stem cells, marriage,
guns--before entering the Republican race. And he has insisted that his new
take on these issues represents the real Romney.
I suspect he's right about this. He was probably a good bit more
conservative than he appeared when he ran as a moderate against Democratic
senator Teddy Kennedy in 1994 (he lost) and for governor of Massachusetts in
2002 (he won).
But changing any of his positions under duress now would produce two
results, both bad. The first is that switching probably wouldn't help his
campaign. The second is that it would inflame a press corps that already
loathes Romney for moving to the right on social issues.
I've been amazed at the raw antipathy that so many otherwise reasonable
people in the media feel toward Romney. The word they use is
"inauthentic." But all presidential candidates are inauthentic to one
degree or another. Even Mr. Straight Talk, Senator John McCain, talks
differently today about tax cuts and immigration than he used to, but the press
doesn't hector him about it.
There's something unique about Romney that repels the press
and keeps him from making a connection with hordes of Republican voters. What
is it? Romney is obviously a decent guy with a devoted family. People who've
worked for Romney speak of him in glowing terms. He succeeded famously in
tougher environments--business turnarounds, running the 2002 Winter
Olympics--than electoral politics. And he's the smartest guy in the
I think his problem is that he's a technocrat who doesn't come across as a
regular guy. Bush senior managed to overcome a similar problem and connect with
voters. His years in Texas
politics transformed Bush. He learned to talk comfortably about country music
and ate pork rinds.
Romney's years in Massachusetts
politics haven't had the same effect. Heaven knows he tries to be a regular
guy. In stump speeches in Iowa,
for example, he dwelled on how much he loves the state and its people. He told
of traveling across Iowa by train as a
15-year-old and coming to the conclusion that "God must love Iowa." Later, when
he worked for a spell in Marshalltown,
Iowa, Romney said he learned how
terrific Iowans are.
But the I-love-Iowa spiel sounded like boilerplate and just added to the
perception of inauthenticity. He'll have to do better than that. Perhaps his
emphasis on "change" will ring some bells with Republican voters,
though this is usually what Democrats like to hear.
Romney, to his credit, gave one of the boldest defenses of negative TV ads
that a candidate has ever made. Normally, candidates are apologetic about
"going negative." Romney insisted that his "contrast" ads
are the best way of pointing up the differences on issues among candidates.
Indeed, they are, and his ads in Iowa
probably kept Huckabee from beating him by an even larger margin.
Whatever new twist Romney comes up with in hopes of saving his wounded
campaign had better come soon. He's pursuing an early-state strategy that, as
you might guess, requires winning in states with early caucuses and primaries.
He needs to win at least two of the first four: Iowa,
New Hampshire, Michigan,
and South Carolina.
That's still possible, but hardly likely.