The inevitable has happened. Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. Now, what does he do about picking a running mate who both calms conservatives while still expanding his appeal to swing voters, particularly women? Good luck with threading that needle.
Romney’s victories over Rick Santorum last night took any remaining doubt out of the GOP race. He can now focus on defeating Barack Obama, but he must take more care than past nominees in getting all segments of his party behind him. Republicans were not split by personal or regional appeal of the candidates. Instead, GOP voters saw the last three men standing through ideological perceptions of each: Romney, the one-time moderate who now says all of the right things to conservatives; Santorum, who has always been a social conservative; and Ron Paul, the steadfast libertarian.
Romney was able to convince enough Republicans that he means what he says, and just as importantly rounded up enough money and endorsements to also convince them he would both be the nominee and best able to defeat Obama. Presidential candidates want to edge back to the political center after winning their party’s nomination. As I’ve written before, that won’t be easy given how far to the right the Republican Party now stands, and the doubts of base voters about Romney’s sincerity.
So Romney needs a conservative running mate or he can't get out of the Tampa convention in one piece. His other imperative is finding a conservative who can also close the gender gap. Romney and his party have a major problem with women voters (our most recent JZ Analytics poll showed Obama with a 14-point lead over Romney among women, and a four-point lead among men). For several months, women have been hearing that GOP leaders don’t think that contraception is a settled issue. This has exacerbated the long-standing gender gap that favors Democrats. Republicans closed that gap in 2010, splitting the votes of women with Democrats. That raised Republican hopes this year.
In 2008, John McCain had a similar, but I think less severe problem with his party’s conservatives, and with women voters. That led to choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate; a move that energized conservatives, but scared the hell out of moderates (including women) who could not imagine Palin being a heartbeat from the Presidency.
Is there a woman who can pass the vetting process and help win both moderate women and conservatives? New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez is doing well with both groups in her state, and has the added benefit of being a Mexican-American and perhaps able to undo some of Romney’s problems with Hispanics. However, she may be too inexperienced to run nationally. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is better known, but is more polarizing and unlikely to bring moderate women to the ticket. Carly Fiorina’s 2010 loss in the California Senate race showed that she has some of the same weaknesses as Romney, making the former Hewlett-Packard CEO an unlikely running mate.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is seen by many as the VP favorite, but what does he really bring to the ticket? As much as Republicans may hope Rubio will appeal to Hispanics, there is little hard evidence he would. Florida’s Cuban expatriates (at least older people) have different concerns than voters of other Hispanic origins. Rubio was also caught embellishing the story of his parents’ immigration here, which came more than two years before Fidel Castro took power. His rise to the Senate is too much like Obama’s, making it tough for Republicans to rail against Obama’s supposed naïveté. And like any member of Congress, having Rubio or Rep. Paul Ryan (author of the GOP budget and its changes to Medicare) as a running mate plays right into Obama’s attacks on an unpopular Congress. The best choice in Congress may be South Dakota Sen. John Thune, but he wouldn’t bring much buzz to the campaign.
The most dynamic VP possibility is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. He led polls for the GOP nomination until he finally convinced everyone he wasn’t interested. Christie would certainly bring star power; so much so that he would outshine and overshadow Romney, a big no-no in choosing a running mate.
Santorum wouldn’t be the first primary rival to be tapped as VP. However, Santorum’s statements on contraception could cement opposition from moderate women.
So what’s left? Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels can effectively mix conservative policies with a moderate demeanor, attributes that made him a much-discussed alternative to Romney. If not Daniels, then someone similar: a safe Anglo male running mate who adds very little to the ticket. There is no cure for Romney’s problems in any of his potential VPs, so he is left instead with doing no harm.