I’m not sure we have ever seen a candidate quite like Mitt Romney.
For years, ever since he started running against Sen. John McCain for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, Romney has tried to position himself to the right. In fact, four years ago, he succeeded in positioning himself as one of two conservative alternatives (the other being former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee) to the Arizona Senator.
The exit poll from the Florida GOP primary on Jan. 29, 2008, when McCain narrowly beat Romney, 36 percent to 31 percent, and Huckabee came in a weak fourth, showed Romney rallying Republican conservatives who could not accept McCain.
In that contest, Romney won primary voters who thought abortion should be illegal, while McCain won those who thought it should be legal. Romney won weekly church attendees, while McCain won those who went occasionally or never. Romney won those satisfied with or enthusiastic about President George W. Bush, while McCain won those dissatisfied or angry.
But don’t stop there. Romney won voters who wanted to deport illegal immigrants, while McCain won those who favored temporary worker status or even a path to citizenship. Romney won conservatives, while McCain won moderates and liberals. Romney and Huckabee tied to win white evangelicals, while McCain won nonevangelicals.
This cycle, Romney has run right again, to establish his conservative credentials, but he has not been successful. Instead, each and every week, he has performed best among the same voters who chose McCain over him four years ago — and he has done least well among those demographic groups that supported him in 2008.
Romney’s great problem in the GOP race, as pretty much everyone has already observed, is that conservatives don’t really believe that he is one of them.
Despite all his conservative rhetoric — on taxes, government spending, traditional marriage, immigration, abortion and health care — conservatives aren’t buying it. They believe that Romney is simply pandering to them because he knows that is what he needs to do to lock up the Republican nomination.
Whether it is his multiple positions over the years on abortion, his support for an individual mandate in Massachusetts, his Mormon faith or simply his profile as a wealthy, impeccably dressed businessman, the most conservative Republican voters (many of whom are evangelicals) don’t believe that he is a passionate conservative who is ready to take on the political establishment.
What’s interesting about Romney and his supporters is that, despite his conservative rhetoric, moderates and country club conservatives continue to support his candidacy.
Think about it. Romney, who stresses his opposition to abortion, talks tough on immigration and rules out a tax increase even to help cut the deficit, continues to get the support of pragmatic conservatives who reject former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s ideological rigidity, thought Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was too conservative and viewed Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a bomb thrower.
Clearly, establishment Republicans also don’t believe Romney when he talks about his views and his agenda. If they did, they probably would feel about him the same way they feel about Santorum or Bachmann.
Romney’s great asset is that these voters figure he is merely pandering to evangelicals and the most conservative element of the GOP when he talks about cultural issues, immigration and taxes.
The bottom line, of course, is that nobody — not his critics and not his allies — really believes Mitt Romney.
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz pointed out to me recently that this makes Romney something like the opposite of what Barack Obama was in 2008.
Four years ago, Obama, who had only a thin legislative record and was known to have voted “present” on a number of important votes in the Illinois Legislature, was so ill-formed in the minds of voters that many could project their own hopes and dreams onto him, giving him considerable appeal among a wide range of voters.
People liked Obama, so they figured out a way to find themselves in agreement with him — even if they had no reason to believe that he really held the views they ascribed to him.
The question is whether, in November, Romney may be in a similar position as Obama was or whether the fact that nobody actually believes Romney will destroy his presidential bid completely.
Is Romney such a mass of contradictions that voters can look at him and project their positions on him, allowing them to support him? Or is his credibility so shot that too many voters will simply conclude that they can’t trust him, making it impossible for them to support him?
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.