How Mitt Romney Can Win Over Conservatives

The Republican electorate is going to have to think with its head—not with its heart or its gut—if it hopes to defeat Obama this fall.

By + More

By now it should be obvious: Former Gov. Mitt Romney and the Republican electorate are scarcely a match made in heaven. The social conservative wing of the Republican Party has flirted with one candidate after another—Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum—in quest of a nominee who better captivates them than the former Massachusetts governor. The result has been the drawn out Republican nominating process, with all its ups and downs.

But it should also by now be obvious—especially after Romney's decisive victory in Illinois last week—that he and the Republican electorate are headed to the altar. This will not be a marriage of convenience; it will be more like a shotgun wedding, forced on the parties by circumstances.

To be successful, every marriage requires work. This one will especially—both on the former governor's part and on the part of the most conservative segments of the Republican Party. Otherwise, both will fail in their most fervent—and fervently shared—objective: unseating President Obama in November.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney]

So what will be needed for this pairing to be successful—to keep it from breaking down into bickering, recriminations, and mutual blaming if Romney ends up missing the mark on election day?

The Republican electorate is going to have to think with its head—not with its heart or its gut—if it hopes to defeat Obama this fall. Obama's 2008 victory was won on the backs of independent voters. Obama won them 52 percent to 44 percent over Sen. John McCain. Polls show that independent voters are already substantially alienated from Obama. They are up for grabs. But in order to win in 2012, Republicans simply must win over these independents. This will require a candidate who can attract them—not scare them off and repel them.

Republicans obviously find Obama so completely maddening that they are beside themselves to get rid of him. And with a debater like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and a culture warrior like former Sen. Rick Santorum in the race—not to mention the libertarian purism of Rep. Ron Paul—there's a natural impulse to want to see one or the other of these guys take on Obama. But that would be self-indulgence of the highest order for Republican voters. It would also be self-defeating. These sharply defined, combative, polarizing candidates will simply repel independent voters, driving them right back into the arms of Obama.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

Which, logically, makes Romney the obvious Republican candidate. He can win over independents; the others can't. It's that simple.

So why can't the Republican electorate get comfortable with this logical, self-interested choice and embrace their increasingly apparent partner?

In a word, conservatives don't trust Romney.

So, especially in light of Eric Fehrnstrom's "Etch-a-Sketch" comment this week, former Governor Romney's biggest priority—if he's going to make this shotgun wedding succeed—must be to win the trust of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. And he must do so without driving away the independents.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Can Mitt Romney Close the Deal With Conservatives?]

So far, Romney hasn't really sealed the deal with conservatives. Otherwise, Santorum and Gingrich would already be headed to the showers.

What would do the trick for Romney with conservatives? My suggestion: offer three or four specific, concrete pledges to conservatives on issues about which they care most deeply—formulated so as to make it clear that, if Romney accomplishes nothing else in his presidency, he will at least deliver on those pledges. These would have to be much more compelling and believable than "Read my lips."  Conservatives have been down this road before. Romney's pledges would need to be concrete, specific, actionable, and credible.

What might they be? Frankly, they ought to be simply more specific and categorical commitments on already familiar Romney campaign themes. Obamacare will go. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. Both deficits and debt will be reduced—dramatically—and through real cuts in programs, not smoke and mirrors accounting gimmicks. Simplify the tax code radically—in ways that could increase net revenues by closing loopholes, but without raising rates.

These are things conservatives care deeply about—and that either appeal to or don't alienate independents. If Romney nailed his flag to the mast on a handful of pledges like these to conservative Republicans—and if Republican voters began thinking more about winning, by winning independents, than about their emotional reaction to their nominee—a shotgun wedding of Romney and the Republican electorate could produce a very fulfilling result in November.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insiders guide to politics and policy.
  • Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.