By Richard Pera
In the wake of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s convincing victory in the South Carolina GOP primary this past week, the Republican presidential nomination is officially up for grabs. Since summer, countless politicos predicted a swift and easy coronation for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as the 2012 GOP nominee. The dissonance between the expectations of pundits and electoral outcomes begs the question: what has been keeping so many Republicans from backing Romney?
Most people will agree that among the four remaining candidates, Romney has the best head-to-head shot at defeating President Obama. If almost every Republican believes that the number one priority is removing the President from office, why slow Mitt’s momentum? The answer: Republicans neither identify with nor trust him.
One of a candidate’s greatest assets is his ability to relate to the electorate. Upon examination of the remaining GOP candidates, none is further detached from the average Republican voter than Romney. Newt Gingrich was raised on military bases by his mother and adoptive father, later gaining wealth from teaching and political careers. Texas Representative Ron Paul was born to a small dairy farmer in Pennsylvania, later serving as an Air Force flight surgeon for five years before beginning a successful medical practice. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in Appalachia and the Midwest, later earning a living as a lawyer. Republicans can relate to these three candidates; each started from a modest upbringing, far from the glare of big city lights.
Romney is just the opposite.
Born to a very wealthy automobile executive and Michigan Governor in Detroit, Mitt Romney received his secondary education at an elite prep school outside of the city. His later education included an undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University and dual degrees from Harvard University’s Business and Law Schools. Later, Romney co-founded Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm that enjoyed astounding financial success. In 2002, Romney won the Massachusetts gubernatorial election, a position that he held for just one four-year term through 2007. Now he is running for President for a second time. Not exactly the average Joe.
The other important reason why Republican voters are hesitant to vote for Romney has to do with his political record. First, it is short, especially compared to the multiple House terms of Gingrich and Paul and two Senate terms of Santorum. Second, he was the chief executive of one of the most liberal states in the country; one does not achieve such a position without detaching himself from at least some standard conservative principles. Romney has switched his opinion on social issues (most notably on gay marriage and abortion) since leaving the Governor’s mansion. This contrasts with others like Congressman Paul, who takes pride in espousing the same views for decades. Even more alarming is his past support for the individual healthcare mandate legislation that he signed into law in Massachusetts, which is eerily similar to Obamacare. Moreover, Tea Party supporters likely view Romney’s huge increases in state “usage fees” as tantamount to tax increases. Third, Romney continues to avoid discussing his faith. Although he is legally not required to do so, millions of staunch conservatives are deeply concerned over how Mormonism affects his vision for the country. Having been a bishop in Massachusetts, Romney takes his faith quite seriously, yet refuses to elaborate on Mormon theology, including denial of the Trinity and belief that Christ appeared to American Indians soon after his death. This is very distressing for evangelicals, many of whom have called upon fellow Christians to refrain from supporting Romney and his “cult” in any election. The Governor has yet to have a “JFK moment;” in which he reassures conservative Christians the way John F. Kennedy successfully convinced non-Catholics that the Vatican would play no role in American government if he were to be elected.
Following his humiliating defeat in South Carolina, Romney reorganized his campaign. Part of this plan included release of his 2010 tax returns, which revealed a $21.7 million income. The Romney campaign was quick to point out that he nearly matched his $3 million in federal taxes with charitable contributions, but half of those contributions ($1.5 M) were to his church, which requires an annual tithe of 10 percent. For many Republicans, Romney’s background does not evoke trust. And for a nation with a jobless rate 8.5 percent, it is hard to back the millionaire who jokes that he, too, is unemployed.
How can typical Republicans relate to a millionaire with an inconsistent political record who has spent almost his entire life nestled in distant cities? They cannot. Romney, coming from landed aristocracy exuding Ivy League pretentiousness, simply cannot relate to rural Americans. Unfortunately for him, that demographic makes or breaks the GOP nomination.