Is Mitt Romney’s manager cred losing its value?

February 14th, 2012

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This piece originally appeared in Politico.

Mitt Romney could end up being the most hapless presidential nominee since Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Romney aims to lead a party whose base is in revolt — against him. Just like liberals were in revolt against Humphrey in 1968.

Antiwar liberals rioted in the streets of Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention. It’s hard to imagine conservatives rioting in the streets of Tampa at this year’s Republican convention. Street riots are not their style. But Tea Party activists are pretty good at making their feelings known. And their feelings about Romney are not enthusiastic.

Conservatives are a movement, like the antiwar movement in the Sixties. And they are taking over the Republican Party, just like the antiwar movement took over the Democratic Party. As Rick Santorum proclaimed to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday, “Conservatives and Tea Party folk — we are not just wings of the Republican Party. We are the Republican Party.”

Mitt Romney is not a movement politician. He’s a manager. He’s running on his management credentials — claiming that he can manage the economy better than President Obama. Romney did his best to rise above the manager image by telling CPAC delegates — the party’s hard-core conservative base — that the changes needed in Washington “are not managerial issues…these are moral choices.”

Romney even called himself “a severely conservative Republican governor.”  (He added the adverb to his prepared text.)  That’s trying too hard. Like when Jimmy Carter told a reporter in 1976 that he “lusted in his heart after women.”  Message to candidates: don’t deal with your weaknesses by calling attention to them. Is a “severe conservative” the opposite of a “compassionate conservative” like George W. Bush?  Actually, we know what a severe conservative is. It’s Dick Cheney. Mitt Romney is no Dick Cheney.

Romney can’t quite close the deal with the party’s conservative base. He doesn’t have the passion, or the anger, to lead a movement. His real cause is electability. In all the primaries so far, Romney voters cite electability as the main reason they’re voting for him: he has the best chance to beat Obama. If there is any passion in his campaign, it’s a passionate desire to put an end to the Obama presidency.

The Colorado caucuses on February 7th were a big shock. Four years ago, Romney carried Colorado with 60% of the vote. Things were different that year. Romney won the conservative base in 2008 because he was the alternative to John McCain, whom conservatives didn’t trust. But so was Mike Huckabee. Romney and Huckabee split the conservative vote — northern conservatives for Romney, southern conservatives for Huckabee. That enabled McCain to win the Republican nomination.

This year, Colorado conservatives abandoned Romney. He got just 35 percent of the vote. Santorum beat him with 40 percent. But the voters were not making a statement about Santorum. They were making a statement about the moment. The Colorado caucuses came a few days after Romney won Florida and Nevada. The press and the party establishment were talking about Romney as the “inevitable” nominee. Conservative voters heard that and said at their first opportunity (Feb. 7 in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri), “We are not going to have Mitt Romney shoved down our throats.”  Santorum gave his answer to Romney’s claim of electability at CPAC: “Why would an undecided voter vote for the candidate that the party’s not excited about?”

Romney is still likely to get the nomination for the same reason McCain won in 2008: happiness in politics is a divided opposition. As long as Santorum and Newt Gingrich split the anti-Romney vote, Romney will be O.K. Santorum and Gingrich have regional appeal. Gingrich does well in the South (South Carolina, the Florida Panhandle). Santorum does well in the Midwest (Iowa, Missouri, and Minnesota).

Moreover, the requirement that delegates be awarded in proportion to the primary vote means that Santorum and Gingrich (and Ron Paul) can continue winning delegates even if they don’t win states. All they have to do is win enough delegates to deny Romney a majority at the convention. Then, Romney will be forced to bargain with conservatives for their support. They can exact a price, such as a say over his running mate. They might even get the convention to nominate a “true conservative” instead of Romney. Maybe even one who didn’t run this year (Chris Christie?  Jeb Bush?).

National polls of Republicans already show Romney slipping to second place behind Santorum.  It’s as if Republicans are eager to support any conservative who’s not Mitt Romney.

Watch what happens in the Michigan primary on February 28th. Michigan is Romney’s home state. His father was governor in the 1960s. It’s a state full of angry voters      who were deeply hurt by the recession. Romney opposed President Obama’s auto industry bailout. If Romney loses Michigan, he’s in serious trouble.

A long primary race in 2008 actually helped the Democrats. Barack Obama looked stronger after he beat the Clinton machine. But this year’s primaries are not doing Republicans much good. Republican voters are not showing much enthusiasm for the contenders. Turnout in most states is down. And the candidates are losing public support.

Mitt Romney’s favorable ratings dropped from 39% to 31% in January, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll. A majority of the public (52%) said the more they hear about Romney, the less they like him. What do they hear about him?  That he’s a rich guy who’s not concerned about the very poor. That he likes to fire people who don’t provide god service. That he believes corporations are people. And that he’s ready to bet $10,000 on a whim. In other words, he’s out of touch. Romney’s problems are not just with an unenthusiastic conservative base. He’s acquiring a bad rep in the broader electorate as well. The Post-ABC poll shows Romney losing to President Obama by six points.

Part of that is slowly rising optimism about the economy. The Gallup poll shows economic confidence in January up to its highest level in eight months. Romney is running as a turnaround artist — an experienced manager who knows how to turn the economy around. But if voters feel the economy is already turning around, what do they need him for?