op-ed

Can Romney rally the base?

David Fontaine Mitchell Commentator and Author
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Mitt Romney has waged one of the most negative primary battles in recent memory. His scorched-earth political strategy has torn at the fabric of the GOP, and the governor isn’t exactly showing a willingness to sew the pieces back together. If the Republican establishment expects grassroots conservatives to simply “get their asses in line” (in the words of the prolific John Boehner), they had better rethink their position.

A consistent campaign of carpet-bombing political foes with negative ads may work when you have a significant money advantage over the field and the backing of virtually every party insider, but it is by no means a viable strategy for the general election. To take on the well-oiled political machine that is the Obama campaign, Republicans are going to have to unite and gain the enthusiasm of conservatives, libertarians, independents and Reagan Democrats. It isn’t going to be enough to rely on people to vote against Obama, they’re also going to have to want to vote for Romney.

For a presumptive nominee who has spent the better part of the last year distancing himself from the grassroots, this will prove difficult. Putting aside Romney’s numerous other weaknesses (flip-flopping on every major issue, Romneycare, etc.), one of his biggest hurdles is going to involve convincing people not to just vote for him, but to actively volunteer and financially support the campaign as well. But is he capable of rallying the troops?

Romney has alienated a large portion of the base through his relentless television and radio attacks. Negative ads are always going to be in play (namely, because they are successful); however, running ads that are 99% negative and 1% positive is an unprecedented act. When you’ve reached that point, you’re giving people a reason not to vote for the other guy rather than for you. This tactic was effective in the primary because Romney had a 15-to-1 money advantage over his most threatening challengers in some states, allowing him to run non-stop commercials attacking his opponents both personally and professionally.

As a result of this strategy, Romney was able to pull out a victory; however, he left a noticeable path of destruction along the way. Voter turnout was extremely low in several states, and the enthusiasm that was on display at the beginning of the primary season had all but disappeared by spring. The Romney campaign effectively demoralized the supporters of every candidate in the field, resigning them to the belief that he was the only candidate capable of beating Barack Obama, even if they disagreed with his views. Unfortunately for Romney, the overarching theme within Republican circles at the moment appears to be, “Meh, he’s bad, but not as bad as the other guy.”

While this “meh” attitude may still get him a few votes, it’s not going to generate the level of enthusiasm needed to solicit big donations. And revenue is everything to a Mitt Romney campaign. Why? Because the presumptive nominee has proven that he can’t run on the issues. For every policy position he takes, there’s a sound bite or video clip of him taking the opposite stance. This adversely affects his performance in debates and interviews, resulting in his avoidance of both.

So where does this leave the Republican nominee? Well, he’s going to attempt to do exactly what he did in the primary, which is flood the airwaves with negative hit pieces. There’s only one problem with this strategy: he’s not going to have a 15-to-1 money advantage over Obama. In fact, most estimates have Obama with at least a 2-to-1 cash-in-hand advantage over Romney, and many believe this gap will widen as the race heats up. In 2008, Obama raised $745 million compared to John McCain’s $368 million.

This puts Romney in quite a predicament, as he’s going to be attacked by an onslaught virtually identical to the one he just waged. And, as a result, he’ll need to rely heavily on donors to counter the damage. However, he has managed to spend months trashing the conservative base of his party and the candidates they supported. The wisest thing for Team Romney to do would be to start mending fences ASAP with the hope of winning over the financial support of these voters.

Unfortunately, the Romney campaign appears uninterested in winning over this faction, choosing to believe that the masses will simply line up behind the candidate because of their immense dissatisfaction with President Obama. Romney is therefore focusing his efforts elsewhere, while bizarrely shunning his base and referring to them as “true believers.” There’s nothing wrong with the campaign broadening its message and trying to reach out to different audiences, but praising Wolf Blitzer and conducting an extensive interview with Diane Sawyer while dodging hosts like Mark Levin is a mistake. Through these actions, the campaign is signaling that it wants nothing to do with the grassroots, at least for the time being.

It should be noted that millions of people worked tirelessly in the 2010 congressional primaries to bring fresh faces and ideas to the House and Senate only to see their newly elected representatives shunned by the establishment once they arrived in Washington. This influential faction of the Republican Party is also put off by what they perceive as an unjust process, where the powers-that-be rally around the next guy in the pecking order and collectively chastise and ridicule any opposing challengers who pose a somewhat significant threat to the chosen one. As of now, the Romney campaign is erroneously taking these voters for granted. Yet, it is certain that Romney will need their active support when the tsunami of negative ads unleashed by Team Obama hits this summer. Unfortunately for Republicans, by the time the campaign realizes its mishap and inevitably shows up with hat-in-hand, begging for donations, it might just be too little, too late.

David Fontaine Mitchell is a commentator and author. His book, “Ascension Island and the Second World War,” was published in 2011.