The conventional wisdom on Mitt Romney has been backwards for the entire presidential campaign. Most pundits have settled on the narrative that the conservative Republican base is actively resisting Romney in the primaries, but if he wins the nomination, they’ll settle for him and won’t need much motivation to head to the polls and vote against President Obama.
In reality, it’s the other way around. He's the first Republican nominee to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary –- and could very well wrap up the nomination if he can keep leads in South Carolina and Florida. For a candidate who supposedly is anathema to the base, that’s not a half-bad performance.
Indeed, Romney has been viewed surprisingly favorably throughout the whole nomination process -– even though Republicans haven’t yet flocked to him en masse. Look at his approval numbers with Republicans, and it’s hard to detect much dissatisfaction with him as the party’s standard-bearer. The just-released ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Romney with the highest net favorability of all the Republican candidates -– 61 percent view him favorably, while just 18 percent view him unfavorably.
In New Hampshire, polling also shows him with healthy approval ratings among Republicans. He scored a thorough across-the-board win in last night's primary, winning 49 percent of Republicans, 42 percent of conservatives, 40 percent of Tea Party supporters and 30 percent of evangelicals, according to exit polling. Suffolk University’s December survey found Romney’s approval rating at 67 percent, with only 17 percent disapproving. In Florida, home to another early primary contest, Quinnipiac found his favorability rating with Republicans at 73 percent, with just 14 percent viewing him negatively. His numbers are strong even with tea party backers and evangelicals –- 72 percent apiece viewed him positively.
Romney’s 25 percent performance in Iowa, mocked by his opponents as laughably weak, was perfectly average, in line with the 26 percent average that past Republican presidential nominees have tallied in the state since 1980.
But his biggest challenge, if he wins the nomination, is generating excitement for his candidacy –- making it more than just an outlet for Republicans and disaffected voters to oppose Obama. There’s a difference between being satisfied with a presidential candidate and being excited by them. Romney is running a check-the-box-conservative campaign. When a candidate relies on deconstructing "America the Beautiful" as part of a stump speech, it may be patriotic but it’s hardly scintillating stuff.
His strategists seem to be operating on the assumption that Obama’s unpopularity is enough to draw the base out to vote for the Republican nominee. That’s a very cautious line of thinking, in line with Romney’s campaign so far. It’s partly a result of Romney’s struggles in connecting with ordinary voters, so his advisers urge him to stick to carefully-crafted talking points.
That may get him through the primary season, but it’s not enough simply to be the non-Obama in the general election. He’s still undefined in the minds of many voters, and his awkward navigation between demonstrating empathy with the working class (“I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired”) while burnishing his business credentials (“If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide that service to me”) suggests the narrative of the Romney campaign is still muddled. That’s a glaring red flag for Romney in a general election.
That’s where the running-mate debate comes into play. For Romney, if he’s the nominee, the selection of a running mate would carry added significance. It’s as much an exercise in branding a ticket as it is selecting a political partner.
There’s the crop of conservative candidates who would allow Romney to make history, by either tapping the first Hispanic or first Indian-American on a presidential ticket. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida heads this list, but New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval all fit this bill. Add South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, an early Romney endorser, who is Indian-American. The rub on all these candidates: They’re all new to the political scene and all have compelling stories to tell, but none have been fully vetted. Picking one could amount to a Sarah Palin-like strategy for Romney –- choosing someone who looks terrific on paper, but who could cause the campaign unexpected headaches to deal with.
Then there are the crop of well-respected, vetted contenders from critical battleground states, like Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. They’ve got strong resumes, not a whole lot of charisma, and would be consistent with the Romney campaign’s play-it-safe strategy.
Finally, there’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who occupies a category all to himself. He’s a conservative rock star, whose acid attack lines against Obama cast aspersions on his performance in office, not his pedigree to hold it. He’s built up his own impressive resume, cutting entitlements and taking on unions, all while holding a strong approval rating in a solidly blue state. He’s got both suburban and working-class appeal. There’s no coincidence that the one Romney event in New Hampshire that generated a 2008-like atmosphere was last Sunday night's rally Romney held with Christie.
The big risk with Christie is whether Team Romney would want to have a running mate that would overshadow the nominee and risk being occasionally off-message. Christie stole the show in New Hampshire in confronting a group of protesters trying to disrupt the event. He even acknowledged in a recent MSNBC interview that he “wish[ed] that Mitt would be a little edgier and bolder” -– praising with faint damnation.
A Romney-Christie ticket would also put two Northeasterners on a ticket for a party that’s concentrated in the South and Mountain West. Picking Christie would be akin to Bill Clinton shedding his party’s liberal image by picking another Southern Democrat, Al Gore, to run with him in 1992. Tapping Christie would allow Romney to brand the Republican ticket as a pair of can-do executives with a record of getting things done –- much like the Clinton-Gore ticket’s youth emphasized the generational gap between the two tickets.
In the past, presidential nominees have chosen running mates who represent battleground states or appealed to certain demographic groups. If he emerges as the nominee, Romney would face somewhat different challenges: He needs a No. 2 who can excite the base and serve as an effective attack dog against Obama, but without alienating independent voters.
When John McCain tapped Palin in 2008, he accomplished the former but badly failed at the latter. But thanks to an exceptionally deep field of talented GOP prospects (elected in the GOP wave elections of 2009-2010), Romney would have the opportunity to accomplish both.