The GOP Primary Is Badly Wounding Mitt Romney

Skepticism in the base and a top-heavy organization mean the Republican nomination battle won't help him like the long 2008 contest helped Barack Obama.


After losing three states last Tuesday, Mitt Romney went on national television and declared: "I expect to become the nominee." Despite a surprisingly solid drubbing by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the conventional wisdom still has it that the former Massachusetts governor is right. It's a position affirmed by his wins in the CPAC straw poll and Maine caucuses over the weekend. He's got the most money, the most aggressive super PAC, the most electable issues profile.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Conventional conservative wisdom also holds that a protracted primary battle will help the eventual nominee. After his Florida victory, Romney himself claimed that "a competitive primary does not divide us, it prepares us" and that attacks against him "toughen us up." Kentucky Republican and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell believes 2012 is "reminiscent of the contest between Obama and Clinton in 2008."

That's the one, as you may remember, that made then-Senator Obama a "stronger and better candidate,"according to his chief strategist David Axelrod and just about everyone else.

"The fact is," opined Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition, at the start of February, "there's nothing but good out of a muscular, competitive, hard-fought primary."

Not so fast.

The 2012 GOP primary is wounding Mitt Romney, perhaps fatally. He may seize the GOP nod, but Nominee Romney will have a significantly more difficult time in the general election because of this fight.

Whereas the choice between Obama and Clinton '08 was a difference of "degree", the choice between Romney and the rest of the GOP field in 2012 has been one of "kind." Even when you consider their differences over the Iraq War, the Democrats' disagreements in 2008 were basically shades of gray (Obama, after all, was quite clear that he supported an increased focus on Afghanistan, and turned out to have enough in common with Clinton on the foreign policy front to give her his administration's key international relations post, Secretary of State). But this year's GOP candidates are telling voters that Romney simply isn't one of their kind: he's a boring flip-flopper without conservative values, if he has any at all.

Ironically for a candidate who's done little but campaign since 2008, Romney's problem stems from the fact that he's too well-known: his name recognition was at 86 percent by July 2011. While he technically passes the "14-year freshness" test (other than Lyndon Baines Johnson, no president since Teddy Roosevelt has taken more than 14 years to transition from his first major elected office to his first term as president or vice president), he fails its spirit. Romney may have become governor just 10 years ago, but his highly-publicized record as a pragmatic Republican in one of the nation's most liberal states cemented a moderate brand he established with an earlier run against Ted Kennedy in 1994. Being known as "Moderate Mitt" is no sin in a general election, but it's turning out to be a dead weight on his momentum in the 2012 GOP primary.

Further, Romney's primary adversaries have attacked the source of his pragmatism, charging not that he has moderate values, but that he has none. Rick Perry accused Romney of saying "whatever [he] needs to say for whatever office [he's] running for." Newt Gingrich said Romney would "say almost anything." Rick Santorum has said Romney "panders" and has no "vision of what he wants to do for this country." All those accusations -- and the negative ads that have reinforced them -- add up to some shocking numbers: Only 38 percent of GOP voters -- Romney's base! -- think Romney says what he believes.

The Democratic National Committee has sought at every juncture to reinforce that narrative about Rommey, saying after his South Carolina loss that Romney "has no core values." This line of attack is devastating for two reasons: it's out there early and it is echoed at every turn by Romney's party opponents. At the same time, the protracted primary contest is forcing Romney to woo some very small and hard-line conservative voting populations, calling for an end to federal funding of Planned Parenthood in the midst of the Susan. G. Komen for the Cure Foundation flap, and ad-libbing at CPAC this past Friday that he is "severely conservative." Come summer, the combined attacks on his credibility and his own words will make it that much more difficult for Romney to convincingly swing back to the center.

Contrast this with the dynamic in 2008: On the day Barack Obama announced his candidacy, not even 60 percent of Americans knew his name -- and the number was only that high thanks to Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech. Obama's short record and relative obscurity meant he could define himself on his own terms. He soared from 18 percent support in CNN's national Democratic preference poll in January 2007 to 53 percent by June 2008. His newness was an asset, and he positioned himself as a change agent running on the themes of unity and hope. When he was challenged (as during the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha), Obama eloquently explained his position and doubled down on a national unity narrative.

The primary-season excitement surrounding Obama's spectacular rise and historic candidacy facilitated a host of logistical advantages that helped him in the general: an adept fundraising operation, a campaign structure in 50 states, and, most critically, and enthusiastic grassroots base of supporters, surrogates and volunteers. It shocking that a first-term U.S. senator could raise $129 million before the first vote was cast in the Democratic presidential primary, but that's exactly what Obama did in 2007. He raked in $36 million more in the month after he (temporarily) won the Iowa caucuses, about half through small-dollar donations.

Small-dollar donors had a few bucks, but just as importantly, they had time. Leveraging the enthusiasm of those who invested as little as $5, Team Obama asked them to lend a hand, a strategy that established a robust ground game in nearly every primary state -- and a network that stayed alive through the general election. Obama for America had five offices in Dayton, Ohio, in October 2008; most its workers has been with the campaign since February or March. (Full disclosure: I was there, as a volunteer knocking on doors for Obama). John McCain, who had sewn up the nomination before his Ohio primary, had only one office.

Romney's operation is comparably pathetic. He obviously has more than enough money to win the GOP primary, but most of it comes from large donors. His campaign raised just $56.4 million in 2011, a paltry 9 percent in small-dollar donations. (If you include his super PAC, the total raised in service of his candidacy heads north to $89 million.)

Some argue that cash will coalesce around Romney once he's nominated. Super PACs and wealthy donors are more important this cycle, and the Koch brothers have led a group pledging $100 million to defeat the president. But timing matters, too. Without early and enthusiastic small donors, Romney is not only missing out on tidy windfall but failing to build a solid, invested national ground game that can persuade undecided voters and churn out votes on election day. After all, he's not going to easily out-advertise Obama in the autumn.

Romney's late push to win Iowa focused on motivating known supporters, not winning new ones. His surprise loss in Colorado came despite an emphasis on the ground game in the state. And he skipped campaigning Minnesota all together. He'll have to compete in all three in the general, but the fact is that the lack of conservative enthusiasm for Romney's candidacy is trickling down to real logistical weaknesses.

Romney's tepid grassroots support routinely results in headlines like "Evangelical Leaders Back Santorum." Romney has won the major-media endorsement race, but endorsements that command tens of thousands of values-driven foot soldiers have been less easily forthcoming.

Democrats' grassroots support is built through unions. In 2008, most were first Hillary Clinton backers out of loyalty to Bill, and helped lift her to primary victories in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. But because the differences between Obama and Clinton were of "degree", not "kind," union leaders easily embraced Obama once Clinton called for party unity.

Republican grassroots efforts are built through churches, many of whose leaders are now firmly behind Santorum and very likely painting Romney as a pro-abortion, pro-gay, liberal Massachusetts traitor. Santorum carried a whopping 76 percent of "heavily evangelical" counties in Minnesota and 57 percent in Missouri, en route to cross-coalition victories. Santorum strategist John Brabender says his boss's message is being carried "neighbor to neighbor," most of whom I'd wager meet on Sunday. If Romney lumbers to the nomination, it's difficult to see how the evangelicals will be converted, if you will, to work for someone so different.

Conservatives can argue that a rough primary fight "prepares" their nominee for a battle with President Obama later this year, but they're putting a brave face on a difficult situation. A Washington Post/NBC poll after the Florida contest painted a stark picture. Romney scored a 49 percent unfavorable rating to 31 percent favorable -- a reversal from his September numbers. More damaging, only 23 percent of coveted independent voters viewed him favorably, a slide from the mid-40s a few months ago.

Separately, his positive intensity score is +12, down from +20 in March 2011. Obama's is +32.

Put otherwise, the more voters get to know Mitt Romney, the less they appear to like him. No wonder his initial campaign strategy was to stay below the radar.

Image: Mandel Ngan / Getty Images