President Obama was supposed to have a billion-dollar bankroll for his campaign, Rick Perry was going to be Mitt Romney’s chief challenger, and Rick Santorum assuredly would be an afterthought. But the biggest misconception this election season is the depiction of Romney as a fatally flawed front-runner who stands little chance at defeating Obama.
Conservative commentator George Will advanced this argument recently, calling for Republicans to give up on the presidential race—in March!—in order to preserve Senate and House seats. Even among nominal Romney supporters, the pessimism is palpable.
It’s easy to understand. Romney still hasn’t been able to close out the nomination, despite running against a lackluster field. His favorability ratings are underwater. He can come across as painfully out of touch. But all these factors, magnified by the hour-to-hour glare of the media, obscure some fundamental assets he would bring to a race against Obama.
Here are several of the biggest myths:
Health care is Mitt’s major albatross. It has become accepted wisdom that Romney won’t be able to attack the president on one of his biggest weaknesses—an unpopular health care law—because the plan he devised as Massachusetts governor bears some similarities, particularly the individual mandate. Obama’s health care law is growing less popular: Last week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll found more than two-thirds either support repealing the law entirely (42 percent) or eliminating the mandate only (25 percent).
For a sign of just how unpopular the law is, White House adviser David Plouffe went on last week’s Sunday shows and tried as hard as possible to give Romney ownership rights. But there’s one candidate who will campaign on the law (Obama) and one who will campaign on repeal (Romney). It’s hard to see many voters who oppose the law deciding to support Obama on the grounds that Romney’s opposition isn’t principled. And in a general election, Romney’s attacks will focus less on the mandate itself (a bigger primary vulnerability) and more on the law’s costs and regulations amid a struggling economy.
The law touches all kinds of pressure points that should motivate Republicans and independents—the federal deficit, taxes, regulation, and, most recently, religious freedom. Assuming the Supreme Court upholds the law or tosses out just the individual mandate, Romney will have a gold mine of campaign material to work with this summer. If Romney can’t take advantage of that, his team will be guilty of political malpractice.
Romney is a highly unpopular front-runner. The lengthy primary has damaged his standing, as polls show his favorability rating in negative territory. However, that could change if Romney secures the nomination and fully advances a general-election message without taking sniping from the left and right. Dragging down Romney’s favorability ratings is his poor standing among the most ardently conservative voters. If the base settles on him, his approval numbers should, at worst, revert to a respectable range.
Favorability ratings for challengers this far out aren’t particularly predictive. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton owned a dismal 34 percent favorable rating versus 46 percent unfavorable in April 1992, when headlines blared that his sex scandals made him unelectable against President George H.W. Bush. Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis sported strong favorability ratings into the summer of 1988, before the Bush campaign exploited his vulnerabilities.
Romney’s fundamental weakness, his aura of being a wealthy capitalist lacking the personal touch, is a general-election liability. Yet there’s also reason to believe that independent voters, looking for a less ideological candidate, will appreciate Romney’s pragmatic streak. These voters place high value on a candidate’s economic competence.
Romney can’t win over conservatives. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, reacting to Romney’s poor Southern primary showings, wrote this week: “There was a time when the South was solidly Republican but those days are gone.” That could qualify as one of the whoppers of the election cycle.
At a time when conservative ire against Obama boils, it would be shocking if Romney encounters serious difficulty winning over or energizing the base. In South Carolina, which delivered a stinging rejection to the GOP front-runner, 86 percent of Republicans said they would support Romney if he emerged as the nominee—a solid tally, given the acrimonious primary. (For comparison’s sake, exit polls showed only 73 percent of Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters would support Obama against John McCain in 2008. Obama ultimately carried the Keystone State’s Democratic vote by 90 percent.)
Meanwhile, Romney’s ability to win over a key swing demographic in this election—upper-income suburban whites—is a significant asset. Look at the 2012 primary results thus far where Romney has performed strongest. He carried most of the swing-state suburban counties—Franklin, Ohio; Hamilton, Ohio; Oakland, Mich.; and Orange, Fla., to name but a few. These are the very parts of the country where Republicans must compete to win in November.
This article appears in the March 28, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.