In the political war to win the White House, a candidate must first outflank primary opponents and then move to the middle for the general election. The frequent fear is that a Republican may go too far to the right and a Democrat to the left, making it difficult to back track their rhetoric to the political center.
Those fears are usually unfounded. As many as 90% of voters have already made up their minds well before the November elections, and those that haven’t, the true swing voters, often don’t pay much attention until a campaign’s late stages. The last things said by a Presidential candidate carry much more weight than even extreme words spoken months earlier.
Mitt Romney’s convincing win last night in another big state, Illinois, moves him a good step closer to the Republican nomination. But has the ongoing primary contest against his more hard core conservative rivals forced Romney too far out of the mainstream to defeat Barack Obama?
With some groups, that is true. Hispanic voters are likely a lost cause for Romney after the stands he has taken against illegal immigration. Romney is also damaged goods among unmarried women because he went along with the GOP’s self-inflicted harm in the brouhaha over contraception. Republicans have not done well with either group in recent elections.
True swing voters care most about the economy, and Romney should have the history, resources and even political skills to convince them he is not an extremist. He was, as his GOP opponents say derisively, a Massachusetts moderate. Also, wife Ann Romney is a real asset humanizing her man, especially among suburban women who have turned away from the GOP’s social conservatives.
Romney’s insoluble problem may be the lack of trust in him within the GOP’s base of conservative voters. They may not allow Romney to move to the middle by withholding their full support should he do so.
Both George W. Bush and Obama had the tacit approval of their party’s base voters and a political climate allowing them get back to the center after contested primaries. Bush billed himself as a “compassionate conservative” when there was still a market for such in the GOP. Obama convinced liberals he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton because of his opposition to the Iraq war and outsider image, while she suffered from her war vote and Bill Clinton’s perceived failure to carry out a progressive agenda. With no worries about support from Democrats, Obama targeted his messaging to independents and moderates, and won both against John McCain.
Romney doesn’t have the same latitude within his party. Any hint of backing off the fiscal and social stands conservatives care about will justify fears that he never really believed any of it. A man accused of not having core beliefs will be questioned about them by both Democrats and a press corps that always chews on a candidate’s weaknesses. Conservatives will be listening.
Even so, you may say that Republicans have no choice but to vote for Romney when they so dislike Obama. Electability is the main argument party leaders make for endorsing Romney, and primary exit polls show GOP voters agree.
However, what’s missing already for Romney is enthusiasm among Republican voters. In a closely divided electorate, you cannot win the Presidency without the full energy of your party. Perhaps that is now less true because independent expenditure committees funded by a few individuals can drop millions into electing a President. Small donors and volunteers may not matter as much in this new environment. But money still can’t buy love, or derail the bandwagon effect. Swing voters recognize which side has energy and conviction on its side, and vote accordingly. And everyone who dislikes Obama can’t be counted on to vote for Romney if they perceive little difference between the two. Some may stay home or will vote for a third party. Romney can’t afford to lose any of them.
If Republicans lose the Presidential election, the party’s social conservative and Tea Party base may want to consider the long ago Pogo comic strip’s quip: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Presidential candidates must be given space to appeal to centrist voters. A party that won’t allow such leeway cripples itself.