In the least surprising political news of the season, Mitt Romney is announcing his candidacy for president. This is essentially a formality since he never stopped running after 2008. He comes into the race with what has traditionally been the enormous advantage in Republican politics of having run at least once before.
He is set up for a classic, grind-it-out, front-running Republican campaign based on money, endorsements, and staying power. But he enters this slot in the race in the weakest condition of anyone who has ever tried to occupy it. He has nothing like the strength of a George W. Bush in the run-up to 2000, and is running for the nomination of a party whose establishment is disdained by its base as perhaps never before.
We all know Romney’s potential problem with his Massachusetts health-care program. Here we focus on five other questions that will be central to the Romney campaign and determine whether he is yet another next-in-line GOP nominee, or the victim of his own weaknesses and a drastically changed Republican landscape.
Has He Overlearned the Lessons of 2008?
In the early stages of the 2008 presidential race, the Republican primary field looked overweighted with moderates. Conservatives had strong disagreements with both Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. Romney differentiated himself by trying to run as the movement conservative in the race. Some of his advisers have concluded in retrospect that Romney went too far, especially since his efforts did not win him enough support among conservative evangelicals to win in places such as Iowa and South Carolina.
This time Romney is running as a business-oriented establishment Republican and keeping his distance from populist conservatism. In 2008 he tried to muscle aside conservative alternatives such as Fred Thompson. This time, Romney could benefit from crowding on the conservative end of the party as Bachmann, Santorum, Cain, and others make it harder for anyone to assemble a majority to his right. Last time, he staked everything on Iowa. Now he is competing there halfheartedly at best.
But Romney could be overdoing it again. At the same time he has moved, stylistically at least, to the left, the party as a whole has moved right. Romney is essentially making a bet that the tea-party phenomenon is overhyped. It’s a bet that went bad for several business-backed establishment candidates in the Republican primaries of 2010.
Romney may have learned another lesson from 2008 too well. Having been slammed for his flip-flops, he now seems to feel that he cannot switch positions on anything, from his Massachusetts health-care plan to ethanol subsidies. The other candidates (and possible candidates) are now exploiting his rigidity — advertising their own willingness to take on the ethanol lobby, for example. And it’s not at all clear that Romney is winning any points for his obviously calculated consistency.
Can He Overcome Doubts about His Authenticity?
There are plenty of voters who find everything about Romney calculated. They are reacting partly to Romney’s persona — his perfectly tidy appearance and the air about him of a salesman. There’s nothing he can do about this; it’s just who he is.
Team Romney hopes, though, that different circumstances than those of 2008 will make it easier for him to convince voters of his sincerity. In 2008, a Romney sympathizer says, “We tried very, very hard to impress every voter we met. We were going through an introduction phase, and at the same time, trying to get them to make an investment in the campaign. It’s like introducing yourself at the same time you’re asking them to marry you.” Also, starting out from scratch, the campaign “had to be very focused on the positioning” of the other candidates.
Now, this supporter argues, Romney is known to many Republican voters and doesn’t have to worry about picking his spots in a race dominated by well-established candidates like McCain and Giuliani. “He’s a better known candidate,” he says, “and his qualities — his experience, his command of the issues, his optimism — will come through and many voters will be able to connect with them.”
Romney is most convincing when he’s running as an economic technician determined to fix the economy, the thrust of his campaign so far this time. He’ll have to make the sale — while seeming like he’s not making a sale. And he’ll have to hope that an economic technician is what Republican primary voters want.
Can He Win South Carolina?
Romney can afford to lose in Iowa, if he wins New Hampshire. But history says if he’s going to win the nomination, he has to go on to win South Carolina after a New Hampshire victory. In 2008, the Palmetto state was almost as much of a fiasco for him as Iowa. He pulled up stakes early and finished a distant fourth with 15 percent of the vote. His poor showing among evangelicals, especially in the South where he never got more than 20 percent of them, raises the question whether his Mormonism is a serious obstacle to ever winning over this crucial voting bloc. “I don’t think it’s helpful,” says one prominent social conservative, “but he’s got to plow through it and work around it.”
A Republican strategist who does work in South Carolina disputes old notions of what kind of candidate can thrive in South Carolina, citing Indian-American Nikki Haley’s gubernatorial victory. “Romney’s issue with evangelicals and conservatives is that they just don’t believe him,” he says. “The evangelicals don’t view him as being sincere on the core social issues.”
Romney’s implicit response to those suspicious of his faith is to hold up his by-all-accounts exemplary personal life. As his evangelical backer Mark DeMoss told Politico recently, “The question I often pose to evangelicals is not, ‘Could you vote for a Mormon?’ But ‘Could you vote for this Mormon?’”
If for whatever reason there’s insurmountable resistance to Romney among evangelicals — 60 percent of the primary electorate in Iowa and South Carolina in 2008 — there’s always the fallback of a balkanized field. South Carolina had been McCain’s Waterloo in 2000, but he squeaked out a plurality in 2008, in part because Mike Huckabee split the anti-McCain vote with Fred Thompson and Romney. If Romney, too, can win South Carolina with 33 percent of the vote, the state doesn’t look nearly as daunting.
Is Huntsman a Threat?
Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, seems likely to get in the race. The Romney and Huntsman campaigns, at first glance, seem as though they would have a ludicrous degree of overlap. Both candidates are Mormons with family money and business experience trying to appeal to pragmatic Republican voters. Is there really room in the Republican primaries for two of them?
Romney won Utah and Nevada handily on the strength of his support among Mormon voters. Huntsman could make those states competitive. Beating him back would have pitfalls for Romney, who, on grounds of both taste and strategy, cannot want to get involved in a who’s-more-Mormon contest. And attacking Huntsman for excessive moderation could make him more attractive to some of the voters Romney is most avidly courting.
Romney has to be hoping that Huntsman simply fails to take off and thus never becomes a factor in the race.
Can He Expand His Demographic Base?
In 2008, Romney did well with high-income voters but had trouble winning support lower on the income scale. Take a look at the exit polls from the New Hampshire and Florida primaries — both of which Romney lost, effectively ending his chance of winning the nomination. In New Hampshire, John McCain defeated Romney by walloping him among people who make less than $50,000 a year, winning convincingly among people who make $50,000–$150,000 a year, and tying among those who make even more. In Florida, Romney beat McCain only among those voters who make between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. Those voters made up only 24 percent of the primary electorate.
Romney’s economic program didn’t differ from that of his rivals in any way that could account for this pattern. His style, however, probably goes over better with people the more comfortable they are with a boardroom. To win the nomination, he is going to have to find an economic message — including both words and music — that appeals to the middle class.
He might find some help in the example of Michigan, one of the few places where Romney won a broad-based victory. While he again did best among voters making more than $150,000 a year, he managed to win pluralities among voters making between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. Among voters making between $75,000 and $100,000 a year, he won by 21 points. Romney’s father was governor of the state from 1963 to 1969, which helped. But perhaps Romney’s familiarity with and focus on the economics of the state made a difference too.
The other candidates in the race would love to be in Romney’s position: at the head of the polls, with pervasive name recognition and a financial edge. But if the answers to these questions come out wrong for him, he will find that it is a hard position to keep.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review. Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.