Now that Mitt Romney effectively has secured his party’s presidential nomination, Republicans are starting to focus on the general election and the task of unseating Barack Obama. This won’t be easy, but given the poor economy and the president’s low approval ratings, Romney must have a realistic chance.
One important question mark hanging over the Romney campaign is the candidate’s capacity to energize conservatives. One thing we learned from the primaries was that Romney is not a particular favorite of those on the right-hand side of his party’s median member. Over the past nine months, conservatives have sought desperately for a standard-bearer and alternative to Romney, rotating from Michele Bachmann, to Herman Cain, to Rick Perry, to Newt Gingrich before finally lining up behind Rick Santorum. In national polls, Romney’s support among partisans never exceeded 40 percent. During the competitive primaries of this campaign — that is those prior to Santorum’s exit — Romney won a smaller proportion of the vote than any other Republican nominee in modern history.
Economic conservatives worried he would replicate the policies he implemented as governor of Massachusetts, particularly the health care law that has been compared to ObamaCare. Social and religious conservatives were concerned about Romney’s tendency to shift positions. Their skepticism of the presumptive nominee is much deeper. Some evangelical Christian leaders, critical of Mormonism, have suggested their followers will be reluctant to vote for him. A Langer Research Study reveals that through the end of March, Romney had won the votes of 49 percent of the primary participants who did not consider themselves evangelical, but only 30 percent of those who did. Polls repeatedly demonstrated that Romney won a greater share of the vote of economic and fiscal conservatives than he did those who consider themselves “values voters.”
The doubt surely remains. Social and religious conservatives tend to be less affluent and from smaller towns and more rural areas than Republicans who consider themselves primarily economic conservatives. They distrust Romney’s background in finance and the fact that he was elected to statewide office in a place like Massachusetts. They detect an authenticity gap and an inability to connect with their lives and values.
In the Ohio primary, only 22 percent of voters said Romney was the candidate who “best understands average Americans’ problems.” Given how numerous religious conservatives are in the GOP “base” — between one-third and one-half by most accounts — Romney cannot afford them to be unenthused. If they stay home in November, critical swing states with large numbers of Christian conservatives — like North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida — might go to Obama.
But there are also signs Romney could pull conservatives together. A major theme of GOP primary exit polls has been Republicans’ deep desire to defeat the president this fall. By a ratio of 9-to-1, they disapprove of Obama’s job performance. Repeatedly, these surveys have shown the most important quality in a nominee should be that he “can defeat Obama,” not that he be a “true conservative,” demonstrate a “strong moral character,” or have the “right experience.”
Around one-third to one-half of respondents picked this as the most important attribute. Although he has a long way to go, Romney has begun to collect full-throated endorsements from prominent conservatives in Washington and groups like the American Conservative Union, the National Right to Life Committee, and numerous Tea Party chapters.
Romney’s campaign strategy will help galvanize the party’s conservative wing. Like any challenger would, he will spend more time talking about his opponent than himself. So will Obama. The president has pivoted from a “Romney-as-flip-flopper” to “Romney-as-extremist” message. What is more, issues that will be foremost in the campaign, like the state of the general economy and the country’s fiscal health, fit nicely with Romney’s resume. His management style and focus on American strength tend to transcend ideology.
Early polling tends to show Romney is down in many key states. He needs to win about half of the electoral votes from roughly 18 battlegrounds and currently he is behind in important contests like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and at best only tied in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Romney’s unfavorables are also a little elevated for a challenger at this point in a campaign; they approach 50 percent in some polls. But victory is not out of his reach. The time before the Republican convention late this summer in Tampa will be crucial. He must get conservatives on board before he goes wooing independents this fall.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.