The story of the 2012 race so far has really been the story of Mitt Romney.
At first glance, Romney appears to have every advantage. He looks like a President, straight out of central casting in Hollywood. He’s well organized, he’s a strong debater, he’s not mistake-prone, he has fantastic name recognition, he’s a great fund raiser, has a strong business background, he’s the choice of the GOP’s powerful establishment, and both the mainstream and conservative media has taken it easy on him compared to the other top tier candidates.
Based on that description, you’d practically expect Romney to be sitting at 75% in the polls with all the other candidates trying to claw their way into double digits.
Instead, the entire primary season so far has consisted of primary voters desperately searching for ANYONE other than Romney to support.
They started with Michele Bachmann. Then, when they concluded she was a little too over-the-top, they moved on to Rick Perry. Unfortunately, Perry got in late and was behind-the-curve, particularly when it came to formulating immigration policy, and after a couple of horrific debate performances, his numbers nose dived. This was unfortunate because Perry is the natural anti-Romney candidate, he should be able to beat Obama, and he would probably be a President that conservatives would be happy with. Next it was Herman Cain’s turn to take off, but a lack of study on foreign policy and more importantly, accusations of sexual harassment and an affair gravely wounded his campaign. There may have been enough doubt about the women’s stories to leave Cain’s reputation largely intact, but there was also enough evidence that GOP voters aren’t going to take a chance on someone who they think could conceivably collapse under a wave of “bimbo eruptions” in the general election.
Then, improbably, it was Newt Gingrich’s turn. Although like most people, I didn’t give Newt much of a shot at the beginning, I did at least figure out where he was going while Cain was still ruling the roost.
Gingrich is also a different kind of animal than any of the other contenders who’ve risen to the top slot. The people who supported him did so knowing he had baggage. Newt had affairs before he converted to Catholicism. Newt has also taken some positions in recent years that aren’t doctrinaire conservative. So, most of these people are unlikely to be swayed by pointing out Newt’s baggage or positions he took that they disagree with because that was baked in the cake from the beginning when they supported him.
Moreover, Newt is inoculated against charges that he’s not a conservative because of his accomplishments. This is the guy who led the first GOP takeover of Congress in 40 years. He came up with the Contract with America. He helped balance the budget, made welfare reform happen, and worked hand in glove with Reagan and Bush as they took the Soviet Union apart. Other than Ronald Reagan, no one has actually accomplished as much for conservatism in D.C. over the last 40 years as Newt Gingrich — and despite the complaints about his leadership, there certainly has been no one since who has even come close to filling his shoes in Congress.
Worse yet for Mitt, the “not electable” charge won’t hold against Newt either. Although polls this early don’t mean much, Rasmussen currently has Gingrich up 45% to 43% over Obama with likely voters. That should be good enough to convince people that at a minimum, Newt is as electable as Mitt.
Assuming Newt doesn’t have any new scandals and doesn’t make any huge mistakes, which given his experience seems unlikely, he’s going to be very tough for Romney to dislodge. This is no small matter because Newt is currently ahead in 3 of the first 4 primary states. If the election were today, Newt would win Iowa, Mitt would win New Hampshire, and Newt would pick up South Carolina and Florida. Next up would be Nevada, which many people would probably discount a bit since it has a large Mormon population which will heavily skew the state for Mitt. Although Mitt has more money and a better organization than Newt, if the states broke down like that, Newt would be more likely than Mitt to gain momentum and pull in supporters from candidates who dropped out of the race.
……Which brings us back to the central question; Why not Mitt?
Well, think of the GOP voters as a fickle woman who’s dating around and trying to find a candidate to marry.
Superficially, Mitt is appealing. But, when he’s asked what movie he wants to see, he says, “Whatever movie you want to see.” When he’s asked what his favorite food is, he says, “Whatever your favorite food is.” When this produces a frown, Mitt says, “Just choose me and I will be whatever you want me to be! Please!” This is instinctively appalling, especially to conservative voters, who tend to assume that any and all ambiguity from a Republican politician means they’re about to be betrayed.
It also puts Mitt in a tough spot because what he really needs to do is generate more enthusiasm for his campaign. But, how? His business experience is already well known and probably explains part of the very limited appeal he has at the moment. He’s certainly not a Tea Party guy. He can’t convince anyone he’s the “true conservative” in the field or even that any position he takes is being selected for reasons other than pure political convenience. He tried the “inevitability” argument on for size, but a candidate who’s perpetually in second place can’t really get by with that. The electability argument? There’s really very little evidence that Romney is particularly electable and Gingrich is now polling better against Obama than Romney. Even Romney’s favorite “I’m not a career politician” argument doesn’t seem congruent with the idea that he first ran for the Senate in 1994 and has been running non-stop for the presidency since 2007.
How does Mitt turn this around? Honestly, he probably doesn’t — and this is another advantage for Newt with Cain slipping away, Ron Paul is probably up against his electoral ceiling and the other contenders are having trouble getting traction. Because Newt hit his stride at the right time, a lot of people feel like he may be the last “Not Mitt Romney candidate.” And if they have to choose between a candidate with some powerful strengths and some well known weaknesses and Mr. “Just choose me and I will be whatever you want me to be! Please!,” then Newt is going to look pretty doggone good.
PS: While I do think Newt is the most likely candidate to win at this point, you can’t completely count Mitt out. Moreover, you can never say never about Perry, Bachmann, Cain or — and this may surprise some people — but given his low name recognition, he has some room to grow — Santorum. Still, if Newt doesn’t have any new scandals or make any major mistakes, he does seem to be the candidate most likely to capture the nomination right now.