As someone who watches way too much political coverage, I’m always struck by how myopic the political punditry is, and by how short their memories are. Every primary battle (and then every election cycle) is decried for its brutality, dishonesty and meanness. Every candidate is considered weak because he or she “can’t close the deal” and win over every voting block in every state. Every four years there is talk of a convention battle, where the front-runner may be deposed by one of the pretenders to the throne. In other words, what we’re seeing now has been seen pretty regularly for decades.
But here’s the bottom line as I see it: The Democrats should probably be worried. They should worry for two reasons: the economy sucks and Mitt Romney is likely to be a more formidable candidate than people realize if and when he wraps up the Republican nomination.
It is the Economy
There’s a truism in politics, and it’s called a truism because it tends to be, you know, true: the economy drives elections. In a country that is basically split evenly between right and left, a bad economy will always drive a large number of people to vote against the incumbent. It won’t be about ideology or accomplishments or grand pronouncements of future programs. It will be about pocketbooks, and if the economy remains as mired in mediocrity as it is today (and there really isn’t time for a robust rebound), that is going to hurt Obama in enough states to make re-election a difficult prospect.
The administration will try to make a virtue of whatever signs point to a rebounding economy, but high gas prices, high unemployment and low housing prices will trump stock market gains and modest job creation numbers for most voters.
Election Math and Swing States
But I think the real key to Romney’s strength will be simple election math. Independent voters in swing states make up the only election constituency that matters, and Romney stands to be very competitive with that crowd.
Let’s say you’re a committed liberal who wouldn’t vote Republican if your life depended on it and that you live on one of the coasts or in one of the more liberal states. If that’s you, then your passion, your dedication and your votes don’t matter (your money might, of course, so go ahead and contribute to the President’s campaign, cause that’s about the only way you can help him). Your state is going to vote for Obama, probably by a huge margin, and that’s that. There aren’t enough moderate votes in play to sway the election, no matter who the Republicans nominate.
Or let’s say you’re deeply conservative and you live in the Deep South. Your state is going to deliver all of its electoral votes to the Republican in the race, and it matters not how fervently you support him. That’s why I roll my eyes at all this chatter about Romney’s weakness with the evangelical base of the party. Sure he’s weak with them, ‘bless his Mormon heart, but in the final analysis they will have nowhere to go. They’ll hold their noses and pull the lever for Romney, because they dislike Obama even more than they dislike the cultist in the race.
That leaves the swing states, where Romney’s weaknesses can become strengths. Remember Florida? Florida held a primary right on the heels of Newt Gingrich’s supposedly game-changing victory in South Carolina. And the good folks of Florida took a long look at the right-wing options and voted strongly for Romney.
Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin? States with mixed electorates where those oh-so-crucial moderates are important. A “southern strategy”-driven ultra conservative is likely to turn off the bulk of those centrists. While a Romney-style centrist with his business and economy focus ought to do extremely well.
Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada? States with significant Mormon populations and strong individualist streaks. Romney is going to come off as a very palatable alternative to a President perceived by many moderates and independents as a tad too liberal for their tastes.
He may suffer in some swing states (Iowa comes to mind) where the conservative wing is dominant, but I still maintain that right-wingers will be so fired up to defeat Obama that they’ll be out pretty much in force. Sure, they’d probably deliver the state more forcefully for a right-winger, but Romney will do.
Flip-Flopping as Virtue
Even the issues that hurt Romney the most with conservative members of his party can be a plus for moderates. The positions of the modern Republican Party that drive moderates crazy are the same things on which Romney has been ‘squishy’ in the past. Even though he’s tacked right to win the nomination, many independents probably do not believe Romney is going to make weakening abortion rights or pushing a marriage amendment or opposing contraception (contraception? Really? How did this become a ‘thing?’) a focus of his administration. The same way many people don’t believe Obama is as liberal as he pretended to be during his nomination fight, independents are likely to consider Romney pretty sound on social issues (that is, regardless of what he really thinks about them, he won’t push policy in those directions).
I think this also applies to health care. Santorum and other conservatives are crowing about how Romney’s health care record in Massachusetts takes that issue “off the table” in the general election. But I think it’s another area where independents can see what they want to see – there are parts of ObamaCare that many people don’t want to see go away, and Romney may be seen as someone who will get rid of the “worst” of the new law while somehow finding solutions that keep other issues in place (I’m not saying I think that’s what he will do, mind you, only that people will again find him a palatable alternative on the grounds that he has a history of promoting reasonable health care solutions – the other Republicans in the race can’t hope to get any of those votes).
So, yeah, assuming a continued weak economy and the lack of any new skeletons emerging from Romney’s closet (and, face it, the guy’s a Mormon bishop, what types of skeletons could their reasonably be?), I think the race will be interesting and very close. And that Romeny could well be elected, where either of the more "conservative" Republicans in the race could only go down to a defeat of fairly epic proportions.