Romney Must Now Heal Party and Prepare for General Election
There’s an old adage in show business that “you always to leave them wanting more,” and so Rick Santorum wisely decided to get out of the race while the getting was good.
First off, there was no path for him to win the Republican Party presidential nomination; nor was there a viable strategy to deny Mitt Romney that nomination at this point. Secondly, getting out now avoided the risk of a primary defeat in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, and that could help him down the line if he decides to run again four or even eight years from now.
Santorum’s decision is also a gift for Romney, who can finally begin to make a full pivot away from the Republican primary infighting and turn his full attention to a general election campaign against President Obama in November, which the Romney camp has been itching to do this for months. It also vindicates the Obama campaign strategy begun last year that basically ignored all the other Republican contenders and focused in like a laser beam on Romney.
So here we go. This is the playing field between now and the election on November 6th. For the moment, advantage President Obama. The polls show he is more likeable than Romney and the president has also built up a huge advantage among women and Hispanic voters, at least at this early stage.
Romney already realizes he’s got some work to do to reduce the gender gap and his wife Ann will have to play a major role in that effort. Republican presidential candidates can win the White House as long as they maintain a healthy advantage among men and keep their deficit with women voters to a manageable number, say five or six percent. Some recent polls in battleground states give the president an 18-point advantage over Romney with women voters and that, combined with huge support from the Hispanic community, could put the likely Republican nominee in a real bind come November.
In the end, though, it will come down to the state of the U.S. economy and whether a majority of voters believe the country is headed in the right direction and whether the president is deserving of re-election. Throughout U.S. history, incumbents generally, though not always, get the benefit of the doubt.
Romney now must reintroduce himself to the public. To some extent, he can shed the ball and chain of having to bend to the far right to win votes and try to recast himself as a more moderate candidate with business experience who can fix America’s economic problems.
It’s true that Romney’s best chance will come if enough voters decide they can’t handle another four years of President Obama and are so downcast about the economy that they decide to fire the incumbent and take a chance with somebody new.
But for that to happen, Romney has to create a new narrative about himself — why he is White House-worthy and what his vision for the country would be as commander in chief. Sure, he benefits if people decide to turn out the incumbent. But voters tend to make a more personal investment in presidential candidates than with other votes for public office, and Mitt Romney is going to have to construct an argument why electing him president is not just good for the economy in the short term, but is good for the country as a whole in the long term.
Santorum Made his Mark in 2012
The lingering image of Rick Santorum from last year was the guy on the fringes of the TV debates, angry he couldn’t get a word in and basically written off by the media and many in his own party. But under the radar screen, Santorum was quietly putting together a mini-movement in the cornfields of Iowa, and it all came together when he pulled off a surprise (though delayed) victory in the Iowa caucuses in January.
Santorum effectively won the primary to become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and he succeeded where Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry had failed. Like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Pat Robertson in 1988, Santorum was able to make his pitch to social conservatives and evangelical Christians looking for someone who could make an argument beyond just fixing the U.S. economy.
Social conservatives remain an important activist group within the Republican Party and that will ensure that at the very least, Santorum will be a featured dinner speaker at social conservative forums for the foreseeable future. Santorum has built a national name with these voters that might pay off should he decide to make another run for the White House somewhere down the line.
Presuming Romney is the Republican nominee, he will be the third Republican in recent cycles to have won the nomination after failing in an earlier bid. Bob Dole won in 1996 after failed bids in 1980 and 1988, and John McCain won the nomination four years ago after having lost to George W. Bush in a bitter primary contest in 2000.
I’m also struck that for the second cycle in a row, the Republicans appear to be on the verge of nominating someone who is not fully trusted by the party’s conservative wing. It seems that McCain’s reputation as a maverick and Romney’s previous stance as a Massachusetts moderate were not fatal to them winning the nomination of a party that regards itself as the conservative voice in U.S. politics.