A Battered Romney Wins: On to November

It was rough going, but Mitt Romney, having run the gamut of the U.S. presidential primary process, has survived. He can now be considered the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee.

From the beginning, Romney had distinct advantages over his opponents. He had run before–”and had, in fact, not stopped running since losing to John McCain in 2008. He, therefore, knew the process better, and was better prepared for the long-haul than those neophytes to presidential campaigns who ran against him.

Relying on his friends and colleagues from the world of finance, Romney had, from the outset, a huge money advantage. Not only was he able to amass a substantial war-chest for his campaign, he also had at his disposal a number of "unconnected" super-PACs which spent lavishly on advertising campaigns doing the dirty work of destroying his opponents.

Given the weakness of his competitors, Romney had the support, quietly at first but then more publicly, of the Republican establishment. This support helped his organizing and fundraising efforts. While his opponents were cash-strapped and forced to focus their resources on early states or a few targeted regions where they knew they might do well, money and establishment backing assisted Romney in pre-positioning his campaign to win in the later states in the primary process.

Finally, Romney, though not the smartest, most comfortable, or most charismatic candidate in the field, was certainly the most driven and desperate–”and it was this quality that gave him the wherewithal to do whatever it took to win. Presidential politics can be a bloody business, and this year’s contest was no exception. For months Romney had been pummeled by his opponents, embarrassed at times, and forced to adopt positions that were totally inconsistent with his past record. But, in the end, Romney triumphed, destroying his detractors and competitors, while re-fashioning himself as the true conservative standard-bearer–”a not altogether believable designation.

With all but Ron Paul now out of the race, Romney stands victorious, but the price of victory has been dear. An example of this high cost was on display this week. Most of Romney’s former opponents, as weird and flawed as each of them were, could not bring themselves to offer a full-throated endorsement of the man who had beaten them. Some begrudgingly acknowledged that they would support him simply because they wanted to beat President Obama in November. Others maintained that while the contest was over, the struggle over the ideological direction of the party continued. Still others decried the process as flawed, griping about big money and negative campaigns as reasons why they had lost.

In addition to being a blood sport, presidential politics can be like a disease that affects the egos of those who compete. Those who enter the fray often have a serious ego problem to begin with. Even little successes along the way only serve to reinforce this problem, until it becomes out of control–”and this year’s contest was a special case.

While most Republicans were dissatisfied with Romney–”and with most serious GOPers staying out of the race–”the rather weird collection who did run, ended up playing "leap frog" with each other, each taking the lead for a time until brought down either by their own inadequacies or the withering attacks from Romney’s big money machine. The result of this has been a host of embittered, wounded, and over-grown egos who may still believe that they are the better candidate.

On one level, it can be said that none of this may matter since two years from now, most Americans will be hard pressed to even recall the names of all those who ran against Romney in 2012. But Romney’s problem was never with these opponents, it was with the Republican base they played to. He was never the favorite of the religious right/social conservatives–”a substantial group that constitutes nearly 40% of the Republican base. Nor was he trusted by the activist core who formed the "Tea Party.” In fact, the reason for the "leap frogging" during the primaries was the base’s desperate search for "anybody but Mitt" to be their nominee. The game is now over, and the party’s base is in the process of "settling for Mitt"–”but I’m not sure that they are in love with him.

During the campaign, Romney attempted to court these hard-line voters. His inclination may now be to "reset" his positions and image so as to better compete for the support of independent and moderate voters in the general election, but to do so will expose his right flank and cause his still wary supporters and past opponents to be even less enthusiastic about his candidacy.

A battered Romney held on a short leash by his party’s right wing should be good news for President Obama, but with the electorate as deeply divided as it is, national polls are telling a different story. The President, it appears, may also have trouble re-energizing parts of his base and convincing some independent voters. As a result, most polls show this Obama-Romney match-up may be as close and as bitterly contested as any in recent history.