Romney's Real Problem

One of the best predictions I made in the last campaign cycle was one I made very early on: that Mitt Romney would not win a nominating contest below the Mason-Dixon Line. Nailed that. And in this cycle I have written that he will essentially need a strategy to get the nomination without the South -- a tough task in today's GOP.

More evidence of this challenge for the Barnstormin' Mormon comes, via National Journal, from a Winthrop University poll showing Romney "way back in fifth place with just seven percent" support among probable primary voters in 11 Southern states. Early polls of this sort can't be taken very seriously, but this is a pathetic showing for a guy with very high name-recognition, who has spent huge amounts of money and time in the area, and who is supposed to be starting as the frontrunner.

Meanwhile, there's been a lot of discussion and pontification recently about how big a problem "RomneyCare" will be for Mitt, with many declaring it his primo #1 challenge.

I would argue, however, that Romney's problem with health-care reform is more a symptom than a cause of Romney's trouble, particularly in the South.

I think for the most part it falls under what I like to call "instant-replay bias" (in keeping with my tendency to explain complex political dynamics through simplistic analogy). You may have noticed that when there's a close call in a televised sports game, the people you're watching with invariably see the play in the way favorable to the team they're rooting for: the Chiefs fans think the knee was down, the Dolphins fans think the ball came out first. Their bias predetermines how they see the exact same thing.

This happens in abundance in politics -- not just between parties or ideologies, but very definitely between supporters of opposing primary candidates. Anyone who was talking regularly with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama supporters in the spring of 2008 can attest to that.

Anyway, the point is that if Republican voters -- and perhaps more importantly, influential conservative media voices -- were predisposed to liking Romney, I'm pretty sure he'd have been able to put the RomneyCare issue behind him. He hasn't, and perhaps won't, because there's too many in the party and the conservative movement who are looking to find reasons to root against him.

Or so I would argue. And, I would argue that the same goes for his religion; it really is true that Romney ran into incredible resistance to Mormonism, particularly among evangelical voters (and thus, particularly in the South). But again, I think that resistance really grew after. I don't think so many preachers would have been describing Mormonism as such an abomination at the time, if they had been more disposed toward Romney as a candidate.

And why were they so down on him? Well, I always liked to say that Southern conservatives were never going to warm up to a slick Northern salesman in a fancy suit selling them snake oil. And there's some of that.

But I think it starts with one thing: abortion.

From very early in the campaign -- or pre-campaign phase, really -- the McCain camp and their allies made sure that every religious conservative learned that Romney was lying about being pro-life. That's an absolute atrocity to those voters. It horrifies them.

Romney tried desperately to fight back, both insisting that he's always been pro-life, and also inventing a story about converting to the cause of the pre-born in 2004. It never took, which is unsurprising since he in fact was pro-life pro-choice [corrected] (for these believers' definition, certainly) his entire political career, and thus his protestations were transparently bogus and unconvincing. (One of my favorites is this incoherent explanation from 2005 -- several months after that supposed epipheny.)

Often a candidate gets to retire an issue problem of this sort after the first campaign; by the second campaign it's old news, and besides the candidate has now held the new view for a while, so the flip-flop is no longer fresh.

But abortion is different, for these conservative evangelical voters. That's a litmus test question, not RomneyCare. That's the one he needs to get right with people on, or be doomed to have them view everything else about him negatively. And -- while I'll say, as always, that you should never underestimate Romney's political skill -- I don't see how he overcomes that problem.

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