If Romney Is Going To Win This Election, He’ll Need To Do More Than Shout at People

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Feb. 13 2012 8:15 PM

Because I Said So

Romney is the “assertion candidate.” But if he is going to beat Obama, he needs to do more than repeat himself.

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How much can Mitt Romney do to convince voters of who he is?

George Frey.

William Buckley famously said that a conservative was someone who stood athwart history yelling stop. Mitt Romney, who says he is "severely conservative," would presumably point at history with a shotgun. 

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The ad-libbed phrase in Romney's speech to CPAC last Friday was new, but the style was familiar. Romney is an assertion candidate rather than a persuasion candidate. He declares something and voters are meant to believe that it is so. If they don't, his instinct is to say it more—he used the phrase "conservative" 25 times in that same speech—or with greater emphasis—in this case adding the most extreme antonym to the word weak that can be found in the thesaurus. (Remember when he tried to match Gingrich's Obama-bashing by promising he'd stuff capitalism down Obama's throat? Dreadful.) 

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Anyone who has used a raised voice with a foreigner in the hopes it will make them understand can sympathize. But this hasn't worked with movement conservatives who have consistently been suspicious of Romney. Romney is working hard to connect with this group, but the challenge doesn't end there. Romney's inability to persuade is a threat to his claim that he has the skills to beat Barack Obama. Even if Romney can win the Republican primary, as the smart people in politics assume he still will, he'll have to rely on more than forceful assertion to woo independent voters who are looking for a good reason to cast their votes one way or the other. 

But until then, Romney will continue to strain to win over conservatives. In the last PEW survey, where he is tied with Santorum among Republicans nationally, he trails among the party base—among Tea Party voters, conservatives, and evangelical voters. In an American Research Group poll, he now trails Santorum in Michigan, one of Romney's strongest states. 

The conservative complaints are well known. They don't like Romney's support of the individual mandate in the Massachusetts health care plan he championed and his shifting position on abortion. Most of all, conservative antagonists worry that he lacks conviction. No matter what he says now, he'll sell out conservatives in office, so the thinking goes. He can proclaim he is a severe conservative as forcefully as he once did that he was a progressive. To solve this problem Romney has offered another proclamation, saying he has been “as consistent as human beings can be.” That's a bold claim—and utterly unpersuasive.

Romney has tried several ways to remind voters that he is a conservative. He talks about his record in Massachusetts—balanced budgets, a rainy-day fund, and efforts to stop same-sex marriage. "I wanted to make sure that people remember the real Mitt Romney, not the one being fabricated by my opponents," he told the National Review Online about his CPAC speech. He talks about his more than 40 years of marriage and his faith. It's a good case but not a slam dunk. Voters who pick his rivals say they are looking for a man who appeals to the heart. Records or position papers don't matter so much. They're looking for a candidate who reflects their world view, can channel it, and shows that he will be a warrior for that world view in the general election. This is what voters across primary states say about Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. It's hard to accomplish that with assertions.

For a while it looked like assertion was all you'd need against Barack Obama. The vote was going to be a referendum on the incumbent. The bad economy meant the voters' judgment would be harsh. Romney was a business guy. He'd show the country his résumé and they'd elect him to turn things around the way he had at the Olympics. The only thing that could save Obama would be an improvement in the economy or an opponent who was objectionable. Right now the numbers are moving in Obama's favor. The economy is looking a little healthier. The Dow average is headed for a record and 243,000 jobs were created last month. 

And Romney's numbers are getting worse with voters who need a little persuading. In the most recent Washington Post poll, independent voters had an increasingly negative view of Romney. A recent recent NBC/WSJ poll found a 20-point increase in unfavorable impressions of Romney among independents. In a PEW poll out today, the damage is just as stark. In November, Romney was beating Obama among independents, 53-41. Now those numbers have reversed. Obama is beating Romney 51-42 among independents. That’s a net 19-point swing in a period of heavy GOP-primary activity.

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