Politics and Public Opinion

AEI Blog Symposium: Romney’s conservative problem

For this online symposium, we posed the following question to a variety of all-star pundits and commentators: What can Mitt Romney do to make conservatives like him?

Jonah Goldberg, AEI fellow and founding editor of National Review Online.

At a public policy think tank there is an obvious bias in favor of the idea that public policy matters, even in presidential campaigns. And it does matter. But its importance is not always easily quantified or universally valuable. A great politician can get away with some weak planks in his platform. A well-known and established philosophical ally can skate by saying, in effect, “trust me.” Mitt Romney has no such advantages. He is not a great politician (which probably speaks well of his character). And he does not have a universally recognized record of fighting for conservative causes. He’d no doubt object to that assessment, but the fact remains that thus far he has been unable to convince a large segment of conservatives that he’s a reliable fighter for their causes.

Hence, suddenly embracing some new, bold policy proposals has less utility for him than it might for some other candidates, for the simple reason that it would reinforce—again, for some voters—the perception that he has no core convictions and that his policies are poll-driven. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help. But if the question is “What can Romney do to get conservatives to like him?” I’m not sure a new pro-growth tax plan will get him too far.

I have no doubt my colleagues at AEI can suggest a host of substantive improvements to Romney’s platform. But his problems have less to do with what he’s selling than the man who is selling it.

Jay Cost, staff writer for the Weekly Standard.

There is probably very little he can do to win over the sorts of conservatives who have been opposing him to date. Instead, his goal is to make sure that Santorum or Gingrich do not make in-roads into the coalition he built in Florida and New Hampshire. To date, the Romney coalition has centered on winning “somewhat conservative” voters and dominating “moderate” voters, while ceding “very conservative” voters to Santorum and/or Gingrich. If he can continue do that, he should win Arizona and Michigan later this month, then Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington on Super Tuesday. He’ll probably lose the Southern primaries (like he did in South Carolina) and a few Midwestern caucuses (like he did on Tuesday), but that won’t be sufficient to stop him.

As for the general election, that should take care of itself. Enthusiasm is an over-rated concept in American electoral politics. After it’s all said and done, everybody’s vote still counts the same, whether it is cast grudgingly or lovingly. For the general election, conservative opposition toward Obama will likely be so intense that the GOP will not have an enthusiasm gap. Witness 2004: there was no great affection for John Kerry, but Democratic turnout was still strong because George W. Bush was so disliked by the Left.

Jim Geraghty, author of the Campaign Spot at National Review Online.

As Bob Dole said, “where’s the outrage?”

He can hold a press conference on the steps of the Department of Justice building detailing everything we know and don’t know about the Fast & Furious scandal, and contend that Obama has turned a blind eye to egregious misjudgments and implausible excuses from Attorney General Holder. He can lay out, in great detail, how Obama failed to bring a culture of accountability to Washington as promised, and pledge that he will.

He can point out that the federal government has no business telling Catholic institutions that they must violate their principles by providing birth control, and that the action suggests that the Obama administration deems religious liberty to be conditional and secondary to the whims of Planned Parenthood.

He can lay out that Obama’s administration sent millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars to one well-connected energy firm after another—Amonix, EnerDel, Solyndra, SunPower, BrightSource, Tonopah Solar Energy—and how, in case after case, taxpayers have gotten little or nothing in return, while his donors prosper.

He can point out how the president ought to be ashamed for signing legislation to end the D.C. scholarship program, a program that helped underprivileged Washington children attend the same elite private school that his own daughters attend.

Each week brings some new example that Obama is nothing like the moderate, sensible uniter that he campaigned as, and is in fact governing in a combative, nasty, punitive, and vindictive manner. In short, he can—he must!—demonstrate to conservatives that he actually feels the outrage that they feel, and that he’s as determined to end it as they are.

Matt Lewis, senior contributor at the Daily Caller.

There are three things that Mitt Romney can do if he is to woo conservatives.

The first is symbolic, but important. He must reach out to conservative opinion leaders—and not just the handful who have been cheerleaders for him in the past. In the last decade, I have interviewed Newt Gingrich half a dozen times. He has been on my podcast. He has spoken at various movement conservative events I have attended. Conversely, my contact with Mitt Romney involves once hurling a question at him at a press conference—which he promptly parried.

Typically, the only time I hear from Romney’s staff is when they want to complain about something I’ve written. Romney and his team seem more comfortable talking to Politico or the HuffPost than to center-right journalists or outlets. Thus, I cordially invite Mitt Romney to come on my podcast. And I invite him to come to the Daily Caller and sit for an editorial meeting. If he can’t handle questioning from the Daily Caller staff, how can he handle Barack Obama?

Second, Romney must present some big and bold ideas. Herman Cain had 9-9-9 and Rick Perry had an optional flat tax, but what has Romney proposed? His campaign is safe and conservative and boring. He clearly hoped he could run a “paint by numbers” campaign based on risk avoidance. That hasn’t worked. Romney must now come out with some bold ideas so that he can actually have a mandate for which to govern.

Lastly, Romney has to really believe it. People can sense when you’re faking. And it seems like Romney is faking his conservatism. The first voter Romney must persuade is himself—then he can appeal to the rest of us.

Andrew Rugg, research assistant for AEI’s Political Corner.

Conservative preferences have been remarkably fluid and dynamic so far in this election cycle. In many ways, pollsters have struggled to keep up with opinions that shift rapidly. I don’t believe, however, that conservatives are looking for the most conservative candidate. A plurality of the Republican electorate, after all, is composed of those who self-identify as “somewhat conservative.” Most place an emphasis on the ability to beat President Obama.

A more important quality, I believe, is trust. Conservatives want someone whom they can rely upon. It’s one of the many reasons why polling shows that conservatives emphasize character over intelligence in their nominee. With millions of dollars of ads being launched back and forth in this campaign, voters are hit with often contradictory messages. If the ads are to be believed, Newt Gingrich is either a closet liberal or a chief architect of the Reagan Revolution. In this environment, the ability to trust a candidate will trump other considerations. A sense that a candidate is trying to be someone who they are not or is speaking over voters becomes a red flag.

Rick Santorum has effectively been able to talk about his working class roots as a way of proving he’s a reliable, trustworthy conservative. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney is not his best when he talks about himself. But he has a genuine story to tell if his book and concession speech in Colorado are any indication. He needs to tell it. By doing so he can build trust among conservatives. My advice would be to throw out the polling and focus groups and concentrate on his conservative story.

6 thoughts on “AEI Blog Symposium: Romney’s conservative problem

  1. Nixon once said “Run to the right in the primary and to the left in the general election.” Romney’s running a general election strategy pursuing the undecided who represent a larger voting block than hard core conservatives. With regard to being boring and not creative; we’ve had 3 years of that stuff and “How’s that working for you?”
    This country is much like the Salt Lake Olympics failing and corrupt. We don’t need a colony on the moon we need a manager to come in and fix it. I say stay the course and if America wants long term partisanship and another 4 years of Barry then so be it. For me it’s ABO aka Anybody But Obama

  2. Is Mitt Romney a guilt tripped white dude unwilling to be severely critical of Barack Obama? Does the color of the president’s skin render him incapable of taking the mixed race man to task?

  3. I think that defining what a true conservative is would be the first criteria in establishing any candidate’s credentials. Is it their religious positioning to please the evangelical groups, their stand on abortion and birth control versus a woman’s right to choose or marriage as seen as between a man and a women, or is it a collection of more important things like a shared morality, sincerity of thought, honesty with others and an avowed faith in mankind, which I believe Mitt Romney shows he has in everything he says.

  4. It’s not just about defeating President Obama. It’s about electing someone who will scale back our leviathan government and limit its scope and reach. It is about upholding the vision of our country as a government of enumerated and limited powers. What do conservatives gain if we elect a repeat of George W. Bush II–a big government conservative who simply adds to the budget deficit and vests ever greater power in the federal government?

    In short, we have nothing to gain and everything to lose. A big-government Romney will fail on the domestic scene just as W failed, and hand back a dispirited country to the liberals, erasing any opportunity we might have to actually change the trajectory, decrease the deficit, or demonstrate the power and effectiveness of conservative beliefs. We would be much better off re-electing Obama and thereby benefiting from the contrast between Obama’s choices and conservative values. A squish like Romney will win the battle but lose the war. We have to adopt a long-term rather than a short-term frame of reference.

    I am thoroughly dispirited, and intend to work to support the election of conservatives to the House and Senate rather than waste my time and treasure working to elect a Massachusetts Republican who is sure to disappoint. The only way I would even consider voting for Romney at this point is if he were to clearly identify the type of justice he would nominate to the Supreme Court if a vacancy occurred. If Romney were to commit to nominating a conservative in the Justice Roberts or Alito mold, then Romney might get my vote. The possibility of Obama nominating a liberal to replace an elderly Justice Scalia, Kennedy, or Thomas, all of whom look heart-attack prone and none of whom looks particularly healthy, scares the bejesus out of me. However, at this point it seems that Romney is more likely to nominate a closet liberal with a “moderate veneer” a la President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Justice Souter.

  5. This is interestingly WAY outdated. My parents were Republicans (Eisenhower era) and would not recognize what you have become…..and your seeming incapacity to suffer the pain of genuine introspection. Your party (neo-con mentality) may have destroyed our country permanently. The Iraq War was criminal in a variety of ways you clearly cannot even admit to yourselves. And you continue to destroy our young and other countries with your mindless, souless, endless wars…..

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