Romney’s Biggest Challenge

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 8, 2012


There is a real chance that Barack Obama can lose the November presidential election in the United States. Fortunately for the incumbent President, Mitt Romney does not seem in a position to take advantage of President Obama’s vulnerable position.


There are good reasons to believe that Obama is in a vulnerable position. He will face one of the most uphill battles of any recent president seeking re-election. In addition to a weak economy, Obama’s less than stellar record on bringing together Democrats and Republicans has debilitated his claims to bringing bipartisan commonsense to Washington. As a result of the economy, but also because of his unsatisfactory performance in office, Obama has uncomfortable low presidential approval numbers, especially in battleground states.


Though he will likely get an overwhelming majority of African-American and Latino votes, Obama does not have a strong record of accomplishments in issues important to those two voting blocs. As a result, turnout among Blacks and Latino might be too low to tilt the balance in favour of Obama in some key states. In other states, like California, Obama will win regardless of his support among minorities. In a few southern states, Obama’s strong support among African-Americans will not be sufficient to upset the strong support for Republicans among white voters who make up a majority of voters.


Democrats have traditionally relied on strong backing by women. Obama will probably still win among women, but high levels of unemployment might also hinder turnout rates among Democratically-inclined women. Moreover, because the government has been unskilled at dealing with the public debate over the impact on women of Obama’s health care initiatives, that critical voting bloc is less strongly democratic in this electoral cycle than in previous years.


Enthusiasm among his supporters has declined—and even though he has collected an enormous amount of money to spend in the campaign—he will have fewer volunteers this time around than in 2008. He will need to rely more on money to staff his campaign. Because he cannot run again against the Bush legacy—but his opponent will run against Obama’s record—he is in a more uncomfortable position this year than he won in 2008.


There are good reasons to anticipate that Obama will not find it easy to win re-election. Yet, the fact that Obama is vulnerable does not mean that the Republican nominee will be able to take advantage of those weaknesses.


Mitt Romney has a record of pragmatism and efficiency. He has political experience, business experience and has a huge war chest to fund a national campaign. However, he has struggled as a candidate. First, it took him much longer than initially expected to secure the Republican nomination. In his party primaries, he had to move too far to the right to prevent more conservative challengers from wrestling the nomination away from him. Still, he was not able to fully convince the far right base of the Republican Party. For many conservatives, Romney is naturally a better choice than Obama, but it is not a choice that generates the kind of enthusiasm that a challenger needs to mount a successful campaign against an incumbent president.


Since securing the nomination, Romney has not been able to redefine himself as a moderate and pragmatic conservative. It has taken him too long to make peace with the different factions of the Republican Party. The debate over the selection of a vice-presidential candidate has turned out to be a new dispute between the moderate and conservative wings of the party. Rather than take charge of the process, it looks as if Romney is losing control of the process that will result in the most important decision a candidate can make before the election, choosing a running-mate.


Romney has also hesitated in going after some key demographic voting blocs. After the primaries alienated Latino voters, Romney has not redefined his position on immigration. Rather than adopting a more moderate approach, Romney has kept his proposal to foster the self-deportation of illegal immigrants. He has struggled to convey his message on issues relevant to moderate women voters. He has risked alienating elderly voters who depend on social security and Medicare. Most recently, a conflict within his campaign team led to the vocal resignation of a gay advisor. It seems as if Romney has been captured by the more conservative wing of the Republican Party and thus cannot begin his necessary journey of adopting a moderate position to cater to independent voters.


Mitt Romney still has some time, but the clock is ticking. He needs to move past the political scenario of a Republican primary, where conservative voters were the decisive bloc, and prepare for the battle over moderates, independent and undecided voters. Unless he adopts more moderate positions, he will not be competitive among those key voting blocs in the November election.


As the campaign begins, President Obama is in a more vulnerable position than his two predecessors—George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. However, his Republican challenger does not seem to be taken advantage of that opportunity. Having a vulnerable incumbent is a necessary condition for a challenger to win the White House, but unless the challenger lives up to the occasion, the incumbent will still win.