Mitt Romney has his cadre of strong supporters, but as I have said before, conservatives aren’t necessarily buying into his conservativeness. Romney’s problem in this arena was pointed up this past weekend at the 34th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where Romney barely eked out first place in a straw poll.
According to political pundit John Fund, Romney used his business and organizational acumen to endlessly work the crowd. He “delivered a pitch-perfect message that sought to unite economic, social and national-security conservatives.” But he only managed to pull out 21% of the vote. Rudy Giuliani gave a rousing but boilerplate address, didn’t mention the hot button social issues, and didn’t work the crowd. Yet he managed to get 17% of the vote.
Senator McCain, perhaps sensing how much history he has in alienating the CPAC crowd, didn’t even bother to show up. He still mustered 12% of the vote. Senator Brownback got 15% and Newt Gingrich (who may be able to influence the debate but has no chance whatsoever of either winning the GOP nomination or becoming president) got 14%. Fund also notes that when RNC members were recently polled, Romney came in second place (20%) to nobody (33%).
This means several things. One is that it is still very early in the presidential race. Most of the stuff that used to happen at this stage flew under the radar. But nowadays news organizations are so hungry for some tidbit of news that they report on candidates’ ancestors (Romney, Giuliani, Obama), as if the candidates could do anything about whom they descended from.
Another thing it means is that conservatives and Republicans (not necessarily synonymous terms) are still shopping around. They aren’t ready to buy yet. And that’s probably the way it should be. Most are still in a casual dating mode. They’re not ready to settle on a single suitor just yet.
It also seems clear that many conservatives and Republicans aren’t happy with the current field of candidates. Some are holding out for something better. This means that there are excellent opportunities for second tier candidates. But those looking for the ideal conservative candidate will probably still be unhappy with their available choices by next summer. Think back to the 2000 campaign, where 11 (more or less) serious GOP candidates generated little enthusiasm among conservatives.
And perhaps CPAC isn’t the bellwether some think it is. McCain’s campaign decided to skip CPAC because they think he can win without engaging those folks. Fund notes that among CPAC attendees, “79% described themselves as Reagan Republicans, whereas only 3% called themselves George W. Bush Republicans.” He also notes that Reagan addressed CPAC a dozen times, while G. W. Bush never has. Despite this, Bush has twice been elected to the presidency. Either the CPAC’s influence is waning, or it has never had the kind of influence some have purported it has.
It should also be noted that many conservatives and Republicans find Romney rather light in the arena of national security. They had the same concern about G. W. Bush. But in those halcyon pre-9/11 days, few gave this resume element as much weight as they do today. Giuliani and McCain rank much better in this arena. Even if Romney had rock solid conservative credentials, he would still suffer for his lack of appearance of national security capabilities. Second tier candidates should take notice of this.
With many months yet to go before most Americans get serious about thinking about their next president, Romney has plenty of opportunity to build support. So do all of the other candidates. But at this point, it’s going to be very difficult for any of them to further remake who they are and what they stand for. Much will depend on what voters think as they get to know the candidates better. And with the myriad factors involved, nobody can say with any degree of certainty how that will turn out.