Just like that, it’s over and Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee. No more hand-wringing about a brokered convention or revolt of the party base. Order has been maintained in the political universe. Money, endorsements and organization have again given the Presidential nomination to the Republican establishment choice.
The methodical Romney now has more than six months to shake off a damaging primary campaign. He and his party are way behind among women and Hispanics, and below the margins they need among independents. Our latest JZ Analytics poll gives Barack Obama a nine-point lead over Romney that includes a 14-point margin among women. Those results are in line with other polls.
Romney has a very difficult task. The GOP’s activist base is at best lukewarm to him, but should still be quite animated in its desire to send Obama packing. Romney has no choice but to reach beyond hardcore conservatives and soften his image among women and independents (Hispanics may be a total lost cause.)
But doing so will be harder for Romney than it has been for most Presidential candidates. The impression of Romney as someone who will say and do anything to sell a deal is hard-wired into both the media and voter consciousness. That’s why the “etch-a-sketch” analogy drawn by Romney’s own spokesperson will haunt him right through Election Day.
But we should also be clear that while the slate may not be wiped clean when someone becomes the nominee, there is great opportunity to make a positive impression on voters who haven’t followed every swing in the primary fight. And even those who have an impression of the candidate can be moved by the right messaging.
So what can Romney do to win the Presidency? First off, he should not attempt to be someone he isn’t. An immutable law of running for the Presidency in the age of 24-hour news is that you cannot hide the real you. Romney has led a privileged life and made his fortune through cold calculations about the winners and losers bought and sold by Bain Capital. He simply can’t pretend to be an everyman in jeans and a cotton flannel shirt.
One of the worst things he could do is try what Al Gore did in 2000, when he hired feminist author Naomi Wolfe, who purportedly advised him about wardrobe and how to become an “alpha male.” Gore and Wolfe denied the characterization, but it stuck anyway. While ideologically very different, Romney and Gore are awkward political actors and look foolish stepping out of character. Since the main rationale of his campaign is business experience, he can only keep running with that.
To date, Romney’s attempts at authenticity have been small steps, and most have backfired. (Romney visited a NASCAR event, admitted he didn’t know much about NASCAR, but did say he knows some of its owners.)
The key for Romney is not convincing voters he is one of them, but instead that he wants to hear from and understand them, and use his experience for the people’s business. His role model should be Hillary Clinton in 2008, who went on a listening tour and incorporated the stories she heard into her speeches. At first Romney may look awkward standing at factory gates or sitting in diners talking to regular people. But that is a picture he must repeat day after day, and work what he hears into his messaging. It will be a welcome replacement to the white bread faces who stood behind him week after week as he declared primary victories.
Call it the heart and soul route. Recall the traditions of effective Presidents who were strong and tough; men like Andrew Jackson and Harry Truman, both tribunes and stewards of the people. Tell voters that you drive a hard bargain, but the deal will be a good one for the nation and you. Romney shouldn’t try to match Obama’s oratory, and instead should admit his shortcomings. Be who you are, and let voters know you hear them and want to grow as a leader.
Obama has a significant lead now, but given our recent history, we should expect the race to tighten. Opportunity is there for Romney if he listen to voters beyond the Republican base. And now he is free to begin.