One thing nearly all observers agree upon about the Republican primary is that Mitt Romney is the most electable candidate. It’s absolutely right, if you exclude from consideration Jon Huntsman, which I do. But the oft-repeated claim that Romney is the strongest candidate has lulled many people into thinking that Romney is a strong candidate. The last two days of the campaign have exposed just how bad this supposition is.
After skating untouched through Saturday night’s debate, Romney endured a beating at the repeat performance Sunday morning, followed by an even rougher two days. The flurry of bad stories — check out this chart of how negative the coverage of Romney has turned — have exposed weaknesses that Romney had managed to keep at least partially concealed. The first is his tenure at Bain Capital. Romney has held this up to symbolize that he “understands” the private sector, “how jobs come and how they go”. Romney’s rivals, with the aid of some ill-chosen remarks by Romney, have turned it into a symbol of Romney’s imperiousness.
It won’t disqualify Romney against Obama, and it may not even be a serious liability, but it does seem that his strongest qualification has been effectively neutralized. If even Republican primary voters react negatively to Romney’s business history — and Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry all believe they do, as evidenced by their gleeful pile-on — then assuredly Romney’s principled defense of capitalism won’t play any better among a general election audience.
Romney’s talents as a politician have been overrated because he so perfectly fits the stereotype of how a politician should look and act. Yet, as any number of journalists watching him in action have noted, there is something a little off about the presentation. As National Review editor Rich Lowry puts it, “Romney’s campaign is all technique and no music.” It seems strange for such a tall, handsome, articulate man to have trouble gaining loyalty, but it’s actually quite natural. The best salesmen don’t look or act like a consummate salesman. Their customers like them precisely because they don’t come off like a salesman. The best politicians are those who don’t come off like politicians.
The most damaging development of the last 72 hours may be Gingrich’s memorable characterization of Romney’s laughably false story of his career — he left the Massachusetts governorship in 2006 out of modesty — as “pious baloney.” Of course, all the candidates in both parties deal in baloney. But what Gingrich captured with his line was the way Romney imbues every story he tells with exaggerated sincerity. Once you disbelieve some of the things he says, it is very easy to come to see him as a total phony.
Not surprisingly, Romney does not have a terribly good image. His favorable ratings are decidedly mediocre — 36.5 percent of Americans like him, and 37.5 percent don’t. At this time four years ago, John McCain had a favorable to unfavorable ratio of about two to one. McCain lost because he ran in a nearly unwinnable environment for a Republican, but he was a popular war hero still basking in the glow of his wildly positive introduction to America, eight years earlier, as a straight-talking reformer.
Romney in some ways resembles the classic anti-Moneyball baseball player — a strapping athlete whose batting production doesn’t match his sculpted biceps. Romney, of course, could well win the election, because he’ll be running against an incumbent during an economic crisis. And, as a potential Obama foe, he certainly towers over the likes of Gingrich, Perry, Santorum, and the rest. But being the best of a terrible lot is not the same thing as actually being good.