Mitt Romney has decided to lose his necktie this time around. Unfortunately, shedding clothing hasn’t proven itself to be a winner for politicians lately. Romney will need to strip away more than just his formal presentation if he wants to win the trust of Republican primary voters. In terms of name recognition, campaign experience and fundraising, Romney leads the GOP field. Unfortunately for Team Romney, the foundation for this frontrunner status is built on a reputation that is out of sync with voters.
The GOP grassroots distrusts Romney because of his continuing defense of Romneycare and the conflict this creates with a central theme in the GOP’s pushback against the president and his strikingly similar Obamacare program. Ron Paul’s recent $1 million “money bomb” aimed at Romney and his signature state healthcare law reinforces that this is still a flashpoint.
Looking forward from the 2010 elections and the widespread dissatisfaction with politics as usual in Washington, voters seem to be looking for bolder, more authentic politicians. The Tea Party wing of the GOP distrusts Romney because of his reputation for flip-flopping. Neither the grassroots nor the GOP establishment feels comfortable with a candidate that has a reputation for being more technocrat tycoon than populist everyman. Republican presidential contender Herman Cain summed it up best when he told The Daily Caller, “We’ve got to beat Mitt Romney’s money, not Mitt Romney.”
So how does Romney plan to win the nomination? He continues to tap dance around Romneycare, drawing a distinction between a state-level law and an overly broad expansion of federal powers. He makes a strong showing in the New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida nominating contests to deny the other contenders the media coverage and momentum that would come with an early breakout. And he is unrelenting in positioning himself as a fiscal conservative who understands how to get the economy growing again — on Main Street as well as on Wall Street.
Much to the glee of the rest of the GOP presidential field, it does not appear that Romney actually understands the mood of 2012 GOP primary voters. Romney’s lack of understanding of the fiscal issues that face everyday Americans was recently on display when he reaffirmed his support for ethanol subsidies, a position that plays well in Iowa but misreads the widespread belief that government intervention is stacking the deck for the benefit of a few.
Americans want to rethink the scope and expense of the federal government. Clearly there is disagreement on the path forward, but the electorate is growing increasingly skeptical of candidates who build campaigns on unsustainable promises. If Mitt Romney can’t break out of the traditional ballot-box pandering politics, his 2012 campaign could be a replay of his 2008 campaign — with a different cover but the same ending.
Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are co-founders of CivicForumPAC and advisors to conservative candidates on Internet outreach, communications and campaign strategy.