It was around this time four years ago that presidential candidate Barack Obama famously told primary voters in Ohio, a manufacturing-heavy state, that he might seek to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. “I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labour and environmental standards that are enforced,” Obama said. A furor erupted when one of his advisers suggested to a Canadian diplomat that his repeated critical comments were mere campaign rhetoric aimed at the Democratic base and labour unions. Of course, that is exactly what it turned out to be. No one has heard a peep about reopening NAFTA since.
It has become common practice for candidates to fashion positions to appeal to their party’s faithful during a primary campaign, and then pivot to a broader audience in the general election campaign. Richard Nixon famously advised Bob Dole that to win the Republican nomination he had to first “run to the right” and, once nominated, “run as fast as you can to the middle.”
Now Mitt Romney has held on to front-runner status after the Super Tuesday elections in 10 states, in which he won a handful of contests and boosted his lead in delegates but failed again to deliver the kill shot to his rivals. He lost several of the most conservative states to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, emboldening his rivals to stay in the race and forcing him to keep making the case he is a hard-core conservative. Romney’s inability to drive his final opponents out of the primary race is continuing to delay the moment when he can finally turn his focus toward challenging Barack Obama for the presidency, and the longer the primary season stretches on, the more complicated it will be for him to move to the centre. Moving to the centre is a hard balance to get right for any politician, but for one who has been labelled “a flip-flopper,” it’s a special challenge.
The middle should have been a comfortable place for Romney, who governed as a moderate governor of Massachusetts—signing laws that overhauled the health care system in his state to extend insurance to almost everyone, banned assault weapons, and set caps on carbon emissions from power plants to combat climate change.
But Romney the presidential candidate has moved far from those and other moderate positions. In his effort to persuade conservative Republicans that he is one of them, he may have negated some of his appeal to a broader swath of voters. And if he tries to shift to the middle, he will only give credence to the flip-flopper epithet that has dogged him through the campaign. “The American electorate still has more people in the centre than on the right or left and most of the ‘undecideds’ are in the centre,” says Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University in Virginia, and author of several books on presidential politics. “It is absolutely imperative that the Republican nominee reach those critical swing voters.”
The pressure on Romney has been immense. This year’s Republican primary has been in large degree a conservative ideological purity test of adherence to tax cuts, spending cuts, and repealing Obama’s health care law. The one candidate who styled himself a moderate, Jon Huntsman, barely registered in the polls while the likes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump, and, most recently, Rick Santorum, took turns displacing Romney at the top of the GOP polls, attacking him from the right. The dramatic difference from just four years ago was summed up by conservative author Ann Coulter at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of activists in Washington last month. “You should all be having extra cocktails tonight,” Coulter told the crowd. “Right-wingers have triumphed over the Republican Party. In 2008, just four years ago, one of our candidates was pro-choice and one was against Clinton’s impeachment. One voted against the Bush tax cuts, wanted to shut down Guantánamo, called water-boarding illegal, wanted amnesty for illegals—and that was the one we ran.” This election cycle, she told the right-wing audience, that won’t happen: “WE WON!” she exulted.
It is in these ideological fires that the new Romney was forged. Last year, Republican congressman Paul Ryan introduced an alternative federal budget plan that rallied conservatives but was denounced by Democrats for its severe spending cuts and for replacing Medicare for senior citizens with vouchers for private insurance. For months, Romney avoided taking a position on the plan. By December, with rival Newt Gingrich rising in the polls in early primary states, Romney embraced the plan—even as Gingrich denounced it as “right-wing social engineering,” before recanting his comments. Attacking Gingrich from the right, Romney said he believed in “the need to fundamentally transform Medicare.” Then in February, in the throes of a tight race against Rick Santorum in the Michigan primary, Romney tried to further burnish his conservative credentials by tossing out his previous economic plan and gave a speech calling for a 20 per cent across-the-board tax cut. Economists said it would drive up the budget deficit, but he said it would be paid for by some combination of growth and cuts to government programs.
The governor who once worked with prominent environmentalists on curbing carbon emissions, and had called on the U.S. to limit greenhouse gas emissions, appears long gone. After climate change critic Rick Perry entered the race, Romney voiced doubts about global warming. “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us,” he told a fundraiser in October.
On immigration, Romney had told interviewers in 2006 that some undocumented immigrants who had lived in the country a long time should be allowed to apply for citizenship. But when Gingrich proposed a similar plan this election cycle, Romney attacked Gingrich from the right for proposing an “amnesty” that would merely act as a “magnet” to encourage others to stay in the country illegally. As he has taken such positions in his effort to claw his way to the party nomination, Romney has lost ground with independent voters who will be crucial in the general election. A poll this week for the Washington Post and ABC News found that Romney has a favourable rating of only 32 per cent among independent voters—compared to 48 per cent who view him unfavourably. By comparison, Obama had a 50 per cent approval rating among independents according to a February CNN poll. Some shape-shifting is accepted by voters, says Rozell. “Obama ran pretty much to the left and to appeal to the activists core of his party—there was NAFTA and his anti-war position. But look how differently he has governed. So Americans do have an understanding that there are certain things candidates have to do in order to win nominations.”
But the problem for Romney is that such a shift would play into the accusation that he is an inauthentic political opportunist who says whatever it takes to be elected. “Pushing as far to the right as he has in the primaries will make it somewhat difficult for him to backtrack in order to appear more moderate to those critical swing voters—especially independent women voters who are going to be the key in so many states,” notes Rozell.
The Romney camp maintains, however, that the former governor, businessman and head of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics will be able to appeal to independent voters by keeping the focus on the weak U.S. economy and the Obama record. “Voters have to judge Obama on his record on the economy—and they can judge Romney on his experiences in the private and public sector and whether he’s been successful. Because he has, they’ll be able to trust him and his vision and his economy,” Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and adviser to the Romney campaign, told Maclean’s.
And there is some evidence emerging that Romney’s ideological meanderings could be helpful to winning the political middle. As much as some conservatives worry that Romney would be less conservative than he claims, some moderate voters are also betting that will be the case. Rob Sisson, president of the Republicans for Environmental Protection, was one of several pro-environment activists who told Politico this week they would support Romney despite his latter-day questioning of climate change science. “He’s going to be driven by data and facts and not emotions and getting pushed into one corner by one faction of the party,” said Sisson. “If that goes against the grain of how he’s campaigning now, so be it.”