Polls and pundits are all saying the same thing: Mitt Romney is in pole position to win the Republican nomination. But below the surface there are deep problems with his candidacy that could spoil Republican hopes of taking back the White House.
Wild swings of enthusiasm from Republican voters for any number of candidates from Rick Perry to Herman Cain are the result of a Republican electorate that has yet to find a candidate that matches its Tea Party tilt to the right. Yet pragmatists in the party – as well as elements of the establishment – are coalescing around Romney as the “inevitable candidate.”
There are good reasons for this.
Romney has won every debate and is much more controlled and presidential than everyone currently in the running except Newt Gingrich. Together with a tightly managed campaign and fundraising prowess, Romney seems like the perfect candidate.
All of this has contributed to Romney’s remarkably consistent polling and the widely accepted belief that he is the best Republican to defeat President Obama in 2012. But selecting a nominee on the basis of who will win the general election can come at the expense of party enthusiasm – a dangerous bargain -- as Democrats learned with Senator John Kerry in 2004.
During Howard Dean's campaign, we were able to establish Dean as the party’s most progressive candidate.
There were a lot of reasons for Dean’s decline, but one big reason is because voters wanted the candidate that they felt was most likely to beat Bush. To them, that candidate was John Kerry.
It was a curious choice. As an early supporter of the war, many in the party thought Kerry was wrong on the major issue of the election. In fact, a poll taken at the 2004 Democratic National Convention found that delegates and Kerry had vastly different positions on the Iraq War:
“Eighty percent of [delegates] polled said they opposed the decision to go to war against Iraq at the time it began, and 95 percent say they now oppose the war. A majority of 63 percent want U.S. troops out within two years; only one in four say the United States should stay as long as it takes to achieve administration goals.”
Today, Republicans face a similar situation with Romney.
Poll after poll suggests that he’s the most likely GOP candidate to beat Obama in 2012, but the health care program he signed into law as governor of Massachusetts and his confusing stance on abortion are examples of issues that may force many Republican voters to question whether or not he really "gets" it.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 40% of Republicans said they would vote for him "with some reservations.” Another poll by Public Policy Polling discovered that 69% of Romney’s supporters said they “might end up supporting someone else” in the primary.
You don't need polling to understand this problem though -- it's an open discussion in GOP circles. "His record in the past on health care and gay rights, obviously, are the opposite of where most Republicans are," said Peter King, the standard bearer of the conservative House Republicans.
Suppose Romney captures the nomination, what effect could this problem have in the general election? Matt Kibbe, president of the Tea Party aligned FreedomWorks, went so far as to suggest that the right wing of the party might "just stay home and throw up [their] hands and say: 'OK, I’ve been disenfranchised. I’m not interested in this election.'"
There is a precedent for this, too.
In September 2004, despite four years of pent up frustration with the Bush administration, Democrats had a 23 percent “enthusiasm gap” going into the final stretch of the general election:
“Nearly two in three likely voters who support President Bush -- 65 percent -- said they were "very enthusiastic" about their candidate while 42 percent of Sen. John F. Kerry's supporters express similarly high levels of enthusiasm for their choice.”
This gap makes it clear that Kerry was the candidate Democrats thought they needed in 2004, but not the one they wanted.
We can’t be sure how significant this distinction was, but there's no doubt it had a negative impact on Democrats’ chances to defeat Bush in 2004.
Enthusiasm, after all, isn't a subjective term. It's why supporters wait in line to vote, it's why volunteers knock on doors in the dead of winter, and it’s why people donate money to campaigns.
Swing and independent voters are crucial to winning general elections, but the foundation of every presidential victory is built on getting the faithful in your own political party excited enough to vote for you and take action to help your campaign. That's something that's difficult to do that when there are fundamental differences on key issues between the candidate and the rest of the party.
Ultimately, I think pragmatic and establishment Republicans will win out and Romney will capture the nomination. And who knows, the right wing could decide in November 2012 that their desire to beat Obama outweighs their disagreements with Romney. -- Although Democrats made a similar choice in 2004, they had no time to debate it. Kerry surged to wins in Iowa and New Hampshire after months of staying in the middle of the pack.
With Romney clearly holding one of the top two spots in both New Hampshire and Iowa today, Republicans have the next two months to decide whether he’s the man they truly want. In the meantime, I’m sure his challengers will be more than happy to provide examples of why he isn’t their man.
Joe Trippi is a Fox News contributor and political strategist who worked for Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and turned Howard Dean into an unlikely front runner in 2004. For more visit JoeTrippi.com.