View from Australia: Romney rolls on to New Hampshire

By Jonathan Bradley

Mitt Romney's margin of victory in the Iowa caucuses last week may have been an impossibly slim eight votes, but the former Massachusetts governor is in a deceptively strong position. It's not just that he will almost certainly win today's New Hampshire primary or that he's looking strong in early polling covering next-to-vote South Carolina, it's the smoothness and professionalism with which he has executed his campaign thus far.

Mitt Romney is introduced at a rally in New Hampshire

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) introduces Mitt Romney in Derry, NH (Photo: WEBN-TV)

To understand Romney's strong position, consider his weaknesses. He's a member of a church — that of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints — that has historically roused deep suspicion and hostility in the religious right. As governor of Massachusetts, he presented himself as a moderate, business-minded Republican who was able to use conservative ideas to achieve the Democratic goal of universal health care. Today's Republican Party, by contrast, is hostile to moderates, and correctly identifies Romney's health care reforms as the basis for their least favourite Obama policy: the Affordable Care Act. Add to that a well-known personal awkwardness and a famous predilection for reversing long held beliefs the moment they become unpopular, and Willard Mitt Romney might be presumed to be languishing in the middle of the pack, not the frontrunner.

Romney's been helped by a lacklustre Republican field this year, thanks to a combination of big party losses in 2006 and 2008, and a bit of luck. Potentially strong opponents like Marco Rubio or Mitch Daniels stayed out of the race, while challengers who looked good on paper, like Rick Perry or Tim Pawlenty proved weak in action. The eventual runner-up in Iowa, Rick Santorum, only managed to bump his polling numbers into double digits in the last week of the race, and has had little time to build the national donor base Romney has spent months — or years, even — cultivating. 

But Romney has also run a slick campaign. He managed expectations in Iowa perfectly, for instance. He was never supposed to do well in a state reputed for its Republican electorate's social conservatism, and when he skipped the Ames Straw Poll this past August, it seemed a sure admission that he knew the limits of his support. His campaign had to clarify to the Wall Street Journal that it wasn't bowing out of contention altogether in the state:

Romney advisers insist he won't skip Iowa entirely. He plans to participate in a debate just before the straw poll that has been sanctioned by the Republican National Committee. But by missing the straw poll, Mr. Romney may alienate some Iowans. "It definitely impacts your ability to compete in the caucuses," said Doug Gross, the chairman of Mr. Romney's 2008 campaign in Iowa. "Iowa Republicans take this very personally."

By winter, Iowa had moved its caucus forward a month, and Romney had gone from barely competing to leading outright. Where once he would have settled for a top three finish and then made his stand in the more-moderate, Massachusetts neighbouring New Hampshire, he grabbed the gold medal in Iowa and is set to consolidate that victory in the Granite State today.

Throughout 2011, Romney made his victory look inevitable without ever raising expectations too high. His commercials looked like general election spots, targeted at President Obama, while his Republican opponents focused on internecine disputes. That didn't mean they were allowed off the hook, however; Romney is backed by a number of big-spending Political Action Committees, who can take unlimited undisclosed donations to spend in his favour, as long as they don't coordinate their activities with his campaign. The once-surging Newt Gingrich, for instance, was battered by a barrage of negative advertisements placed by pro-Romney PACs throughout December, all perfectly legal, all frustratingly unable to be pinned on Romney himself. Gingrich has sworn his revenge.  

And despite a knack for saying foolish things, Mitt "Corporations are people" Romney is a proficient debater and he has figured out a sharp way of dispensing with his opponents attacks: Accuse them of possessing the very weaknesses he himself has. Jon Chait identified the modus operandi:

Romney anticipates his greatest vulnerability, then peremptorily lobs the charge against his adversary. That way, when his opponent uses the charge it’s repetitive.

Romney first deployed this technique against New Gingrich. He has deployed a furious assault against what was briefly his chief adversary, painting him as a flip-flopper who has wavered on abortion and even supported health-care reform in Massachusetts. Gingrich was left stammering helplessly in response. After sifting through the charges and counter-charges, all the Republican voters knew was that you had two candidates accusing each other of flip-flopping and trying to help sick people get health insurance. The natural next step is to open his general election campaign by portraying Obama as a callous aristocrat.

Unless the Republican Party really wants to get a closer look at Rick Santorum, there's a good chance Romney could win in New Hampshire, then, with a hand from his momentum and his money in the bank, wrap up the contest in the ensuing South Carolina and Florida contests. Then it's on the general, where the Obama campaign had best take care. Romney's been helped by underperforming opponents, but he's run a professional, ruthless campaign, that's shown itself to be quite skilled at overcoming its candidate's weaknesses. On his performance thus far, Romney looks to be a deceptively formidable opponent.

10 January 2012