Mitt Romney Doesn’t Need to Pander to the Tea Party or Evangelicals to Win

The GOP candidate needs to be more like Barack, less like Rick.

One of the worst-kept secrets in American politics is that candidates in presidential elections play to their party’s fringe in the primaries only to move toward the center in the general election. It’s one of those unavoidable quirks of an unrepresentative two-party system where independents outnumber partisan voters; you’re just not supposed to talk about it.

So when Eric Fehrnstrom—an adviser to the “severely conservative” Mitt Romney—spilled the beans last month, telling a CNN interviewer that the campaign would “hit the reset button” this fall, he set his boss up for weeks of unrelenting Etch A Sketch humor, and he bolstered the former Massachusetts governor’s image as a flip-flopping opportunist.

It was a cringe-worthy moment (one of many this primary season), but in his candor, Fehrnstrom revealed an important lesson about presidential politicking circa 2012: Beyond general get-out-the vote drives, candidates are foolish to spend all their money and energy in a general election trying to convince their own party to vote for them. They need to tap the rest of us. And if Romney has any chance at all of beating President Barack Obama this fall, he’d better get to it.

On Monday, Gallup released the first of what are sure to be many polls gauging voter sentiment heading into November. It showed the presumptive GOP nominee running neck-and-neck with the President—with 90 percent of Republicans saying they plan to vote for him (the exact same percentage of Democrats who say they’ll vote for Obama). It also showed Romney with a six-point lead among independents, which looks pretty encouraging until you factor in the 12 percent of undecided voters. That double-digit sweet spot is where Romney needs to focus his attention.

Now, you may ask: What is it these undecided voters want? Well, for starters they want real leadership, not backbiting showmanship; and they’re largely distrustful of blind ideologues for whom politics is a winner-take-all contest where 99 percent of the American public always loses. But most of all, they’re fed up with the rabid partisanship that has become increasingly endemic in Washington; that’s why they are unaffiliated with a political party in the first place.

Beyond that they are a pretty heterogeneous group, spanning the political spectrum from Ron Paul Libertarians to Green Party Social Democrats. As a group, though, they tend to skew center-to-left on social issues and support moderate-to-conservative middle-class economic policies.

The good news for Romney is that the President has lost considerable support among this group of voters since 2008; the bad news is that, so far, Romney has not managed to significantly engage independents. And if he kowtows to recent pressure from GOP leadership, he’s not likely to.

Over the past two weeks, Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt has been working hard to coordinate the candidate’s message with that of congressional conservatives, including members of the Republican Study Committee—a powerful House caucus founded by conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich (who also helped form the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been getting pounded in the press for writing Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law).

On Monday, a day before Romney scooped up overdue endorsements from Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Rep. Jeff Landry—a Tea Party freshman from Louisiana—made it quite clear who’s calling the shots.

“We’re not a cheerleading squad. We’re the conductor. We’re supposed to drive the train,” he said.

That kind of thinking will be problematic for Romney. He’ll have a hard time engaging swing voters if he is seen as a puppet of the most unpopular Congressional majority in recent history. Instead, Romney’s success or failure as a candidate rests on his ability to convince nonaligned voters and disgruntled Democrats that he can do what the President has struggled to pull off—namely, present a clear vision for prolonged economic prosperity. That’s right. It’s the economy, stupid.

This position was echoed by strategist Karl Rove, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week:

“Mr. Romney will need to tap into the disappointment and regret that many Americans, even the President’s supporters, feel about Mr. Obama. Yet while setting the record straight about the last three dismal years and Mr. Obama’s attacks is important, it is not enough. Winning candidates for the American presidency offer a positive, optimistic agenda that reassures voters about what they will do once in the White House.”

That’s contrary to the advice put forth by some pundits, who say to win, Romney needs to engage Rick Santorum’s base of evangelicals and social conservatives. I believe they are wrong. Beyond the simple fact that poll numbers show social issues like abortion, birth control and gay marriage rank at the very bottom of voter concerns going in to the general election, Romney has already played his hand with this group, and he risks looking even more disingenuous than he already does if he tacks too far right now (especially when the Obama camp dredges up all that tape of Romney saying he supports a woman’s right to choose). Strong social conservatives and evangelicals are now represented by two types of voters: those who are going to vote for Romney simply to see Obama out of office, and those who are so disgusted with their options that they are going to sit this one out. There’s little Romney can do to change that.

If he’s going to win—and it’s clear he has a fighting chance, it’s not going to be because he picked up Santorum’s radical constituency, but because he scooped off the undecideds who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and aren’t happy with the president’s track record. This would be centrist Democrats uncomfortable with the president’s strong progressivism and moderate Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote—during a time of war—for a ticket carrying a vice presidential candidate whose foreign policy credentials consisted of the ability to see Russia from her bedroom window in Alaska.

In the end, the accidental brilliance of Romney’s primary campaign may turn out to be the one thing he’s been fighting against all along:  his unshakeable identity as a moderate Republican candidate. By refusing all winter to succumb to the unhinged radicalism of his rivals, Romney could seem almost palatable to swing voters this fall if he only gets the nerve to take control of his own campaign and finally shows some real principles.

My advice to him at this point: Either grab the wheel of the train, or make sure you’re in the caboose when your party leaders drive it into a wall.