The race for the GOP nomination is over — really, Newt — and Democrats should be feeling pretty good. Barack Obama’s polling numbers have bounced back from their lows of last summer. The wealthy Mitt Romney, meanwhile, seems out of touch with ordinary voters. His “likability gap” is rivaled only by his gender gap. With employers finally hiring, the US economy is perking up. People are angry about rich folks getting tax breaks. And over the last six months, the Republicans have managed to alienate some of the largest voting blocs out there, notably women and Hispanics.
Then too, there were the bruising, nasty Republican primaries, which seemingly left Romney in tatters. Rather than concede the obvious — that he eventually would be the nominee — a series of Not-Mitts launched attack after attack aimed at taking him down. The Republican race was a Democratic dream; the conspiracy-minded might credibly wonder whether the Democratic National Committee had been secretly funneling money to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Given all that, one would think Romney would be well behind Obama. Yet three new polls — one a CBS News/New York Times survey, one by Pew Research, and one by Gallup — show a virtual tie. That’s a startling result for a candidate who’s been put through the wringer, a result that suggests that Romney’s prospects are actually good. Here’s why:
The base is secure. During the primaries, pundits marveled at the anybody-but-Romney dynamic that motivated the rise of a host of conservative challengers. But will conservatives’ unhappiness with the middle-of-the-road Romney mean they’ll reject him in November? Not a chance. According to the Gallup Poll, 90 percent of Republicans say they’ll vote for him over Obama. After all, they have nowhere else to go.
It’s all up from here. Freed from attacks from within, Romney will now begin to re-introduce himself to the electorate. It’s true his reputation took a beating in the primaries. So too did Obama’s during his epic 2008 battle with Hillary Clinton. But the nominating process is mostly inside baseball, and a series of biographical ads can do much to repair Romney’s image with the general public, particularly since his family takes wholesomeness to a level that rivals the Cleavers. Voters may not necessarily want to have a near-beer with the former governor, but they should start to feel better about him.
The general election is independents’ day. Much of what hurt Romney during the primaries was having to kowtow to his party’s right wing. That’s over. The Etch A Sketch is now ready for a vigorous shaking, which is to say, Romney is now free to begin wooing the critical independent voters who will decide the election, a group he mostly had to ignore during the race for the nomination. He’ll soften his positions on divisive issues like immigration, play down social issues, and focus on the economic arguments that were the original heart of his candidacy.
Whatever doesn’t kill me . . . On several occasions during the primaries, Romney brushed off the attacks from his opponents, saying (likely through gritted teeth) that they had made him “tougher.” That’s probably true. It’s certainly hard to imagine a line of attack that wasn’t exploited during the primaries. When similar attacks emerge from the Obama camp, Romney should be better prepared to handle them.
Ya never know. The unpredictable can wreak havoc in a campaign, of course. An attack on the United States, for instance, generally helps the incumbent. Meanwhile, Romney’s remarkable ability to commit gaffes will doubtless provide both comedy and consternation in the coming months. Still, the greater risk is to Obama. In recent days, we’ve seen the head of the General Services Administration resign over a party in Las Vegas, US soldiers making light of the dead, and Secret Service members carousing with prostitutes. This is the kind of stuff that, closer to Election Day, can change votes.
In conclusion . . . If I were betting, I’d still put money on Obama to pull out a win. The economy is the biggest issue in this election, and it’s working in his favor. Intrade, the on-line forecasting site, is currently predicting a 60 percent chance of an Obama victory, with only a 38 percent chance for Romney. Meanwhile, the website Real Clear Politics figures that 227 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win are leaning Obama’s way.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t bet a lot.
Originally published in the Boston Globe on April 21, 2012.