Longtime, trusted and battle-seasoned adviser Eric Fehrnstrom didn’t think these words would create perhaps the biggest distraction of an unusually caustic Republican primary:
“Everything changes,” said Mr. Fehrnstrom during a CNN interview earlier in the week. And then, like that, he dropped what became the line of the political year to date: “It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
While Ohio Art, Inc. is no doubt thrilled by the throwback revival of its generation-crossing toy, the former Massachusetts Governor is not. Etch A Sketch sales rose by over 200% over the past week, but Romney remains flat as Sen. Rick Santorum won his seventh primary this month in Louisiana.
Yet, Romney still leads in almost every national GOP poll by 8 points on average according to RealClearPolitics. Most observers also think he’s pretty much got it locked heading into Tampa Bay later this summer. And, right now, he’s almost halfway to the number of delegates needed. Things should be on the up and up for Mitt Romney.
But, only 13% of Americans have a very favorable opinion of him, according to the latest YouGov poll released to Politic365. And nearly half of all GOP primary voters so despise him that they’d rather see their embarrassment of a primary go on longer until it picks someone to their liking. “Despite claims that a long campaign will hurt the eventual GOP nominee in the fall race against President Obama, Republican voters don’t want any candidates to drop out of the contest—at least not yet,” says Thom Riehle at YouGov. “Just 24% think all the trailing candidates should drop out in favor of Romney. He is still weak with Republican voters when it comes to his conservative credentials — and his believability.”
And he’s the butt of comedian jokes about a plastic candidate so detached from the average reality of most Americans, that few – even Republicans – could resist the temptation to blast him for riding his dog Seamus atop the family car during a 12-hour vacation ride to the Canadian border over 20 years ago. It was a politically thorny, yet very tame and very White man’s Michael Vick moment. But, instead of getting jail time and suffering a near fatal blow to his career, Romney is faced with the possibility that even though he’ll secure the nomination he won’t be measuring any White House drapes.
So says conventional wisdom and the endless lines of prognosticators and sports bar pundits. The chattering class believes the Republican primary has been so nasty, there’s just no way a GOP nominee can win.
Not so fast, though.
Looking deeper into Fehrnstrom’s comments, President Obama’s re-election strategists should be worried. The fact that Romney is the Etch A Sketch candidate should be reason for alarm rather than late night stand-up. Once the primary fight comes to a close, most voters will have short memories as political cycles live very short lives. What may have been a trending favorite in the social media space last week can quickly dissolve into ancient history given the speed of the 24/7 news space.
And, some observers point to the fact that Fehrnstrom is, after all, correct. “Romney is not just the flip flopper,” says a Republican strategist close to the campaign and speaking freely on condition of anonymity. “He’s also the guy who is a centrist at his core.”
The Etch A Sketch comment breathes life back into a story line that all too many have forgotten while trapped in the Republican primary circus. Remember: Mitt Romney was the former and rather moderate, centrist Governor of a very blue and liberal state dominated by its Democratic political machine. That achievement as a Republican was no easy feat.
It’s also a quality that could be very useful to Republicans and very alarming – perhaps fatal – to the President’s re-election chances. This is why the GOP establishment is making every effort to get Romney the nomination. They know their man will make that dramatic pivot in September. Once the current GOP nomination process is over, Romney will be in a position to finally tap into his inner-moderate, free from the shackles of just pandering to evangelicals, Tea Party faithful and the conservative rank-and-file. At that point, he’ll be able to sing a tune he believes will be attractive to quite a few moderates and independents who are on the same wavelength.
He’ll go Massachusetts.
That presents a new dilemma for a President who is also getting dogged by slipping poll numbers. While 26% have a unfavorable opinion of Romney in that same YouGov poll, a staggering 38% have the same view of Obama.
What is worrisome to some Democratic strategists is that the political climate is so polarized right now that the President is faced more with the prospect of people voting against him than for his opposition. Republican voters, for example, might dislike the candidate they picked as their nominee, but their hatred for the President is so real that they’ll mobilize on the pure energy of it.
That hostility combined with Romney’s ability to create appealing centrist messages will be exacerbated by a racial environment that is tense and acrimonious.
Over 55% of Whites disapprove of the President, in addition to 90% of Republicans. That’s problematic for an incumbent with a general approval rating that lags under 50% and needs all the votes he can get.
“Of course race contours Obama’s chances in the sense that there’s a portion of the American public that has still not accepted his presidency,” notes Peniel E. Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University in an interview with Politic365. “He received 43 percent of the white vote in the last election. He will need to maintain aspects of that percentage to ensure that the coalition that let him win comfortably in 2008 is capable of winning again.”
“In a very real sense, he’s running against himself and the opposition does not matter,” adds Joseph.
The re-emergence of social issues, pushed into the equation by pandering conservative icons like Sen. Rick Santorum, is an indicator of a culture war looming so large that it may reduce economic concerns to a foregone conclusion. Republican strategists have discovered a silver lining in the Primary Wars, lessons in playing with political emotion that could shift the tea leaves dramatically.
While presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney is pressed to sell an economic message, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Republicans to pounce the President when unemployment dips and the Gross Domestic Product expands at a 3% rate. But, what may work in the general elections is a level of racial coding so incendiary that it will make 2008 look like child’s play.