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With the Iowa caucuses just over a month away, Republican voters are still searching for a savior. The latest hope is Newt Gingrich, who now sits atop national polls. He’s be wise not to get too comfortable. At various points this year, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have each surged to the front. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, while never dazzling, has been strikingly consistent—if also consistently unloved. Both in Iowa and nationally, he’s holding steady with a bit less than 25 percent of the vote, strong enough to make him competitive but not enough to pull away or generate excitement, despite performing well in debates and avoiding missteps. His own party seems determined to nominate anybody but him.
That may sound like a grim verdict. It isn’t, really. While Romney will never be a messiah candidate like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, chances are he won’t need to be. “I don’t look at his being stuck at 25 percent as a weakness,” says Steve Schmidt, chief strategist for John McCain’s 2008 Presidential campaign. “I see it as a show of strength in a very strange primary. As other candidates’ vote share falls away, I think he’ll get stronger.”
What about the staunch opposition to Romney, often cited on cable television and talk radio? It turns out that “Romney hatred” has been exaggerated. In a poll of Iowa and New Hampshire voters conducted for Bloomberg and released on Nov. 17, J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines-based Selzer & Co., sought to measure the intensity and causes of this supposed phenomenon. “We tried to identify why people hate Romney and discovered that they really don’t,” she says. “In fact, people think he’s smart, Presidential, and electable—but a significant minority don’t think he’s conservative enough. We found discomfort and unease, but not an ‘anybody but Romney’ sentiment.”
Selzer also found that, contrary to popular perception, Romney has attracted a substantial new following. Only 41 percent of Iowans who support him in the Bloomberg poll also backed him in 2008, meaning that a majority are newcomers. Many more rate him their second choice. This support has come despite Romney’s having mostly ignored Iowa, and appears to have convinced him to start competing in earnest. His first headquarters opened in Des Moines just before Thanksgiving. In New Hampshire he is well ahead, with more than twice the support of his nearest rival, Representative Ron Paul of Texas. Were he to carry both states, his national numbers would quickly improve.
Romney’s opponents could exploit his weaknesses—and he has many. Nearly half of Iowans and 40 percent of New Hampshirites believe he’ll say anything to get elected. The health-care law he signed as Massachusetts governor prompted 58 percent of likely caucus-goers to rule out supporting him. His Mormonism presents another obstacle. Asked directly, most voters claim it won’t influence their decision. But Selzer discovered that while Romney leads comfortably among Iowans who consider Mormonism “part of the Christian tradition,” he rated a distant fourth among those who consider it “something else.” Then there is the makeup of his constituencies, which include some of the least influential groups in the Republican base. The liberals and moderates strongly for him are vastly outnumbered by skeptical conservatives. He performs best among the elderly; but in Iowa the percentage of seniors planning to caucus next year has mysteriously fallen by half. That would benefit Paul—who is the most popular among younger voters—at Romney’s expense.
The best news for Romney is that no one has been able to turn these vulnerabilities against him. Even in the debates, the other candidates have largely gone after each other. In the unlikely event that Gingrich or someone else does take aim, Romney is still well positioned to withstand the attack. “Presidential campaigns end when they run out of money,” Schmidt says. Money—and luck—may be Romney’s greatest assets. From his policies to his poll numbers, little about him sets Republican hearts alight. But for now, 25 percent could be a good enough number, and Romney a good enough candidate, to end up with the nomination.
That would be a blow to the “Not Mitt” Republicans and a disappointment to many more. With Republican motivation soaring, the party would find itself saddled with a less-than-popular nominee.
Here again, Romney’s situation would be better than it appeared. Survey research shows that when an incumbent President seeks reelection, voters of both parties are moved primarily by their judgment of his performance. Sure enough, in an Oct. 6 Pew Research Center poll that had Romney and Obama in a dead heat, more than two-thirds of Romney’s supporters said that they were casting their ballots against Obama rather than for their own guy. Enthusiasm for Romney was not a major factor, nor even the most important consideration. “In a general election contest against an unpopular incumbent,” William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution wrote in a recent paper on the 2012 election, “the main hurdle that the opposition candidate needs to clear is that of competence.”
As the Bloomberg poll makes clear, even Romney’s detractors acknowledge his competence. In fact, the only issue upon which Republicans more readily agree is whether Obama deserves a second term. Both answers are good news for Romney.
The bottom line: As his rivals for the GOP nomination rise and then quickly fall, Romney—unexciting but consistent—is making a virtue of his weaknesses.