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Keep It Simple, Team Romney

The core Republican message is a winning one.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By JAY COST
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Now that Mitt Romney has sewn up the Republican presidential nomination, the general election battle has begun. Team Obama obviously recognizes this; since Romney basically sealed the deal after the Wisconsin primary in April, the president and his team have launched a series of attacks designed to distract the country from the real stakes of this election.

Photo of Mitt Romney

Addressing supporters in St. Petersburg, Fla., May 16


This raises an obvious question: What should Romney do? Many commentators have correctly suggested that he not take Obama’s bait on items like the “war on women.” There is no need to play the game by the rules Obama wishes to set. However, that only explains what Romney should not do. Is there a clear, positive strategy for him to follow?

There is. An examination of this year’s electoral landscape, relevant polling on President Obama, and the history of how Republicans win the presidency shows a pretty straightforward path for Romney. 

Fortunately for Romney—in contrast to nominees like Bob Dole in 1996 and Walter Mondale in 1984—he does not have to convince people that their eyes are lying to them, that the state of the union is actually worse than it appears. People know that times are tough right now; they do not need Romney to convince them of that.

This is also President Obama’s key vulnerability. His job approval has been under 50 percent since the end of 2009, with only a few temporary exceptions; worse, his approval on the big issues is well into negative territory, with solid majorities disapproving of his handling of the economy, the deficit, and health care.

Romney’s essential task is thus to persuade people to act on their convictions. A majority of the American electorate is disappointed—one way or another—with the performance of this president. Romney just needs to convince them that things will not improve in a second Obama term.

It is important to note that almost all of the electorate is already locked in. Over the last 25 years, the numbers of core Democrats and Republicans have been roughly equal, such that it is a very rare event in the modern era for either side to fall under 45 percent of the vote. There really is only 10 percent of the public up for grabs. This small slice of the electorate must be Romney’s focus.

This points to the paths he should not pursue. Conservatives are deeply frustrated with President Obama and view him as aloof, arrogant, and unqualified. Polling, however, indicates that the middle of the country sees things differently. They like the president; they think he sympathizes with their plight, and they see him as a credible leader. So Romney should eschew any and all ad hominem attacks; with the president’s personal favorability ratings above 50 percent, it would be a waste of time.

However, these same voters do think Obama is more liberal than they are. This is Romney’s opening, for an unabashed liberal has not won the White House since 1964. Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama all secured victory by running, in some form or another, against or at least away from dogmatic liberalism. People nowadays simply do not trust the government very much—the country has generally been suspicious of big government for a couple of generations—which means that appearing to be a liberal is not a good way to win a national election.

Romney therefore can take the top three issues the country is concerned about—the economy, the deficit, and health care—and connect the people’s disappointment with Obama to their perception of him as a liberal. In other words, Romney needs to explain why things have remained so sour during the Obama tenure. That story is really a simple one: Things are bad three years after the worst of the recession because Obama’s policies have been too liberal to succeed.

On the economy, the stimulus failed because the solution Obama offered was premised on growing the government. That is no way to restore economic health. 

On the deficit, Romney can argue that it is out of control because liberals cannot help but run up a deficit. They like to grow government, and so Obama has spent, spent, and spent without paying for it, resulting in an enormous deficit. Worse, his big spending failed to jumpstart the economy, which means tax revenues have remained depressed.

On health care, Obama promised to solve this key structural ailment via government activism. But Obamacare is only going to make matters worse—by hiking the cost of care, it will make it harder for employers to add new workers; it will mean less money in the pockets of average citizens; and it will exacerbate runaway federal deficits that depress future economic growth.

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