Business Times - 08 Mar 2012
Romney nomination will favour Obama
His Wall Street-made wealth and performance during primaries only helped to accentuate his negatives to voters
By LEON HADAR
HERE is a central political paradox of this American presidential election season: The more Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gets closer to winning his party's nomination, the less are his chances of beating Democratic President Barack Obama in the general election in November.
The outcome of the 10 Republican presidential primaries on Super Tuesday failed to provide Mr Romney with a breakout moment. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's victories in the primaries in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota ensures that he will continue to pose a serious challenge to Mr Romney. But after winning seven of the first 12 Republican contests, the Super Tuesday's wins by Mr Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in the states of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Vermont - and a very narrow victory over Mr Santorum in Ohio - suggest that if he maintains the current momentum, he will be on his way to collect enough delegates to win the nomination.
Moreover, Mr Romney, a centrist Republican figure, continues to enjoy the support of his party's establishment whose members have been worried over the electoral surge of Mr Santorum, a social-conservative Republican. Mr Santorum, reflecting a sentiment shared by many of the party's rank-and-file, has raised questions about Mr Romney's commitment to conservative principles and has appealed to many blue-collar voters who perceive the former Bain Capital executive as an 'elitist'.
While Mr Santorum, as well as the two other Republican presidential candidates, former Speaker of the House of Representative Newt Gingrich, who has won the primary in his home state of Georgia on Tuesday, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the leaders of the libertarian wing of the party, are expected to remain in the race, the conventional wisdom in Washington continues to be that Mr Romney would be nominated as the presidential candidate in the Republican convention in Tampa Bay, Florida, in June.
But Mr Romney's expected victory would come with a very high political price tag. The long and gruelling Republican primaries has ignited bitter fights between Mr Romney and his numerous more conservative challengers, which only helped to highlight some of the vulnerabilities of the former governor. He is seen as a charisma-challenged and humourless multi-millionaire in an election year when independent middle class voters - who are going to determine the outcome - feel financially distressed and blame Wall Street - where Mr Romney had made his millions - for the country's economic problems and its growing social-economic inequalities.
If anything, Mr Romney's performance during the primaries, including his reference to his large fleet of luxury cars and several homes around the country and his willingness to make a US$10,000 bet with a rival, only helped to accentuate his negatives. And Mr Romney's opposition to President Barack Obama's successful programme to save the American car industry has certainly not made him a popular figure among unemployed blue-collar workers.
As a general rule, the more Americans get to know Mr Romney, the less they like him. Indeed, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC opinion poll, 40 per cent of Americans view Mr Romney negatively with only 28 per cent viewing him positively. The same poll suggests that Mr Romney would lose, 44 per cent against 50 per cent, in a electoral matchup with Mr Obama.
Other opinion polls point out to an even wider margin of loss for Mr Romney in the general election.
One of the main challenges facing Mr Romney and the Republicans is the growing perception that the economic recovery is beginning to gain steam. At the same time, there is rising public concern with the issue of social-economic inequalities that have been dismissed by Mr Romney and other Republicans as a product 'class warfare' - a campaign being instigated by Mr Obama and the Democrats.
At the same time, the Republican primaries campaign has also been drawing public attention to the rising influence of the members of the conservative social-cultural wing of the party. The leading Republican presidential candidates, including Mr Romney, have expressed their opposition to abortion and gay rights. They have also blasted a regulation approved by the Obama administration that requires that all Americans with private health insurance, including those run by religious groups opposed in principle to birth control (such as the Catholic Church), to have access to contraception. The issue of contraception coverage has become a major issue in the campaign, with the Republicans accusing the White House of launching a 'war on religion' and Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative radio talk-show host referring to women using contraception as 'sluts'.
But according to polls, more than 90 per cent of American women, including a majority of Catholic women, use contraception and other means of birth control, and the continuing Republican pre-occupation - if not obsession with the issue is probably going to weaken support for the Republicans among women voters, especially white suburban women who tend to vote in large numbers.
And the fact that Mr Romney - who during his term as Massachusetts governor had adhered to moderate social-cultural positions - is allying himself with the social-cultural conservatives in his party is going to hurt him in November. Similarly, his echoing of the views of anti-immigration Republicans is not going to help Mr Romney win many votes of Hispanics - an increasingly important electoral group.
Yet it is important to remember that the presidential election will take place nine months from now and that the attention span of most American voters is very short. Indeed, most Americans tend to pay serious attention to the election campaign and the leading candidates only after Labour Day in the beginning of September. By then a lot can happen in America and the world, including another crisis in the eurozone or a war in the Middle East triggered by an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. These and other developments could put downward pressure on the economy and lead to a major rise in energy prices which in turn could bring to a halt the fledging economic recovery.
In any case, despite the improving economic conditions and a slight drop in the unemployment rate, Americans are still worried about their jobs, the declining values of their homes, and the perception that America's global position vis-Ã -vis China and other emerging markers is declining.
All of which would provide Mr Romney with an opportunity to question Mr Obama's contention that he was leading the country towards economic recovery and growth.
Indeed, Mr Obama's job approval rating continues to be lower than 50 per cent in some of the major battleground states such Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, and Indiana which he had won in 2008. If Mr Romney could win back two traditionally Republican states - Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana, and beat Mr Obama in the three major 'swing' states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, he could win the White House in November.
That would certainly be a challenge for Mr Romney. But despite all the current problems that Mr Romney is facing now, that would not be mission impossible.
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