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The Problems of Mitt Romney, Part II

Date posted: Thursday, April 5, 2012

The fear of the frontrunner.

Photograph via Getty Imagines

Photograph via Getty Imagines

(Editor’s note: For last week’s column—or, Part I—click here.)

Where were we?

Ah, yes: Mitt Romney. That’s where we were. To be precise, we were discussing the many, many problems, or a few of the many, many problems, of Mitt Romney and his presidential campaign.

This is where we have been for some time—haven’t we been writing and talking about Mitt Romney’s flaws since time immemorial? Or maybe it only seems that way because this Republican primary has dragged on beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. (That includes the wildest expectations of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich; there is no way Santorum thought he would make it this far, while Gingrich’s vision of himself is so grandiose, nothing short of being Czar of the Universe would surpass his wildest expectations.) This primary is like a horror movie that offers one fake twist and turn after another, except we already know who the real killer is and we just want to see the credits roll officially already. That time will come soon. Maybe. Depending on how oppositionally defiant Gingrich is feeling this month.

In the meantime, what is beyond doubt is that this campaign has inflicted real damage on Romney. Strange, since it never really seemed like Santorum or Gingrich was a feasible candidate, but true. Last week I mentioned Romney’s abysmal ABC/Washington Post poll, in which President Obama destroys him in terms of favorable-unfavorable rating among moderates (61-34 for Obama, 35-48 for Romney) and independents (50-46 for Obama, 35-52 for Romney).

Now take a look at his long-term favorable-unfavorable numbers, which held relatively steady (and even) over a two-and-a-half-year period before his unfavorable numbers skyrocketed over the last few months of intense campaigning. There is a more recent uptick in positive feelings toward Romney, which may indicate conservatives finally coming around to the fact that he is going to be their nominee and trying to get behind him lest Obama win reelection and do more dangerous, stealthy, socialist stuff. But still, they don’t really like Romney. He’s not one of them, and they know it.

So Romney finds himself at a crossroads. He must finish sealing the deal with conservatives while simultaneously reaching out to court moderates and independents for the fall. I’m not convinced he has the political skills to do both. So far it’s been one or the other: When he embraced the Republicans’ war on women, women under 50 turned away from him in droves. When he repeatedly portrayed himself as the rich guy who doesn’t care about the poor, his unfavorable numbers jumped 20 percent among white voters earning under less than $50,000.

It is crucial to pause here and to make a point: The problem isn’t that Romney is filthy rich. Every presidential candidate is, to some degree, wealthy. The problem is a combination of two facts: Romney is filthy rich and his agenda benefits the filthy rich more than anyone. A January poll from YouGov found that while voters considered both Obama and Romney to be wealthy, a greater percentage said that Obama cared about the poor, the middle class, and “people like me,” while a greater percentage said Romney cared about only the wealthy.

(Amusing side note: in this poll, 93 percent said that the words “personally wealthy” described Romney “somewhat well” or “very well.” I want to know more about the 7 percent who said that “personally wealthy” did not accurately describe him. Who are these people? Are they gazillionaires? Are they Bill Gates? Did they think that “personally wealthy” was not a strong enough phrase; maybe they were searching for an option, something like: bathes daily in melted gold?)

Anyway, this perceived empathy gap between Obama and Romney makes it all the more befuddling that Romney recently embraced Paul Ryan’s GOP budget, which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would drastically cut Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, education, housing . . . this list could go on for pages, but basically: anything not named “defense” will be sliced and diced. Yes, Romney needs to appease conservatives. But did he really need to call the plan “marvelous?” As Obama noted, who calls any kind of budget “marvelous?!”

Let’s look at it this way. Putting aside whatever he brings to the table—and right now, that does not appear to be much—Romney’s hopes of winning each category of voters rest ultimately on fear. He hopes conservatives will vote for him out of Obama-fear. He hopes independents will vote for him out of economic concerns.

Okay. But only one of those fears is guaranteed to still be alive and well come November. The economy is improving. It may stall again, but there’s no guarantee either way. On the other hand, the conservatives’ fear of Obama doing dangerous, stealthy, socialist stuff in his second term? That’s a sure thing! Why not bank on the sure thing?

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Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. He tweets @benrhoffman.

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