Romney's Desperate Conservatism

What a difference four years makes. Facing a must-win Michigan primary in 2008, Mitt Romney went all pro-worker populist; after John McCain said that some auto-industry jobs were not coming back, Romney vowed to never allow any of those jobs to be lost ever, for eternity, and hammered McCain in ads for abandoning those workers. This time, he's placed an op-ed in the Detroit News arguing, in part, that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley should have been paid ahead of Chrysler's employees in the bankruptcy plan.

Poor Romney. He's having a tough time closing the sale with conservatives, because despite all his right-wing rhetoric, they suspect he is merely telling them what he thinks they want to hear. And how can he combat that perception? By giving them more of the right-wing rhetoric  that he thinks they want to hear. Friday, speaking to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney spoke the word "conservative" 24 times in 25 minutes. He followed that up by telling the conservative National Review Online that "I was on the front lines on conservative social issues."

Much of Romney's need to suck up harder and harder to the right can be attributed to his own inconsistent record on the issues, and changes in the Republican base over time. But I would suggest another possible factor: the economy.

This is just a theory, but I suspect that the recent good economic news is part of what's forcing Romney to the right.

As you know, the news has been good, at least for the moment. The unemployment rate is down; private-sector jobs are increasing at a strong clip; new jobless claims are down; consumer confidence is rising; and the stock market is going like gangbusters.

One possible effect of this, I would theorize, is that the conservative talk shows, blogs and columns have a lot of time and space to fill where they would otherwise be criticizing President Obama's economic failures -- time and space which is being filled by non-economic issues, such as the birth-control-coverage controversy. As Glen Johnson points out, this is not the turf upon which Romney wishes to do battle.

I would also theorize that the good economic news may be changing the composition of the Republican primary and caucus electorate -- removing many of the moderate Republicans and (where applicable) independents who are likely to favor Romney against Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

The good economic news has resulted, unsurprisingly, in a bump in Obama's approval rating. He had dipped to around 40% approval in the fall, but has now climbed to around 50%.

That shift has likely left a lot of people relatively less engaged in the choosing of Obama's replacement. I think the turnout so far tends to support this. Turnout in most of the contests so far has been no higher, and in many cases lower, than in 2008. The numbers should, in my opinion, be considerably higher. In 2008, most independents were more interested in the Democratic selection; many Republicans, disillusioned with George W. Bush and the national GOP, were largely disengaged, at least in these early stages of the election cycle.

According to entrance/exit polls (from CNN), a couple of the most recent contests have had a significantly more conservative turnout than in 2008. In the Florida primary (on January 31), self-described "very conservative" voters accounted for 33% of the total, up from 27% in 2008; moderates and liberals were 31%, down from 38%. In the Nevada caucuses (February 4), very conservative rose from 40% to 49%; moderate and liberal dropped from 25% to 17%. (Unless I'm mistaken, there were no detailed entrance/exit polls for the most recent caucuses in Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, and Maine.)

In both of those cases, the total number of participating voters decreased -- in other words, the change came from a sharp decline in moderate voters, not an increase in very conservative ones. And those were both Republican-only contests, where you would expect less of an effect.

In the earlier Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina contests, the ideological composition did not significantly change -- which is interesting in itself, particularly in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where open primaries should have enticed significant numbers of moderate independents who voted in the Democratic primary in 2008. 

But we may also be seeing a shift as the economic news is improving, to a Republican primary electorate increasingly dominated by the core, Obama-hating conservatives, with less-dissatisfied moderates staying home.

Of course, the economic news could shift back to negative. But that won't happen before the upcoming contests in Arizona and Michigan later this month, and the Super Tuesday events of March 6. If my hypothesis is correct we can expect a more conservative primary electorate for those primaries than the Romney campaign originally assumed. (In 2008, Arizona's Republican primary voters were 30% very conservative, 34% moderate/liberal; Michigan was 24% very conservative, 44% moderate/liberal.)

I suspect that the Romney camp has already figured this out from their own polling. Otherwise, I don't think Romney would have come out as quickly, or firmly, against the Obama birth-control decision; nor would he have added to his stump speech a new line about preventing Massachusetts from becoming the "Las Vegas of same-sex marriage." And, I don't think he would be kowtowing quite so far to the union-hating portion of the Michigan population. 

The great conundrum is that those Republican-leaning moderates who are deciding not to participate in the primaries are exactly the voters Romney will need in the general election. But by opting out of the primaries, they are forcing Romney to ignore them and cater to the conservatives -- which makes it tougher for him to win them in November. 

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