What Mitt Romney has to do to win the nomination

Mitt Romney has a problem. A solid majority of the Republican base does not want him to be their nominee  for President. He has been either the most or second-most popular Republican in the field since this campaign began, but that hides his underlying weakness. The conservative  base of the Republican Party does not trust him because only a few years ago he was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-stem cell research and pro-universal healthcare. *Miraculously,* Romney had a change of heart on these issues as soon as he started running for President, but that doesn’t fool most conservatives (nor should it). These are among the several reasons why there is a solid bloc of Republicans who are searching for someone, anyone to nominate but Mitt.

For the purposes of this discussion, there are two principle blocs of Republican voters. There is the establishment wing of the Party, who comprise the staunchly pro-business, pro-defense Republicans and most of the moderates in the party. The other wing is the conservative wing. This part of the party is dominated by socially conservative evangelicals and the economically conservative Tea Party. Mitt Romney does very well with the former and very poorly with the latter. For an illustration, let’s look at the poll data:

Romney and Jon Huntsman are the two current candidates who appeal to the establishment wing of the party, while all the rest more or less appeal to the conservative wing of the party(with the exception of Ron Paul, who appears to have his own constituency). Note that there are far more voters in the “conservative” wing than in the “establishment” wing.

Romney has maintained a fairly constant level of support between 15 and 25 percent of the Republican electorate. Romney’s support rose from about 17 to 25 percent early in the summer after Mitch Daniels, another contender for the establishment vote, announced he was not running. Romney maintained 25 percent support through the summer. Crucially, the rise of Bachmann this summer did nothing to dampen Romney’s numbers. This appears to indicate that few of Republican establishment deserted Romney to support the rising Michele Bachmann.

Romney did start dropping once Rick Perry entered the race. Perry was initially billed as the one candidate that could unite the establishment and conservative wings of the party. After his poor showings in the debates, Perry has dropped somewhat and Romney has risen. That tells me that Romney’s establishment defectors have retreated from the Perry camp, back to Romney. It also seems that Perry’s debate flubs don’t bother the conservative wing of the Party.

So what do all these roving poll numbers mean for Mitt Romney? First they show that Romney has a base of support such that about 15 percent of Republicans definitely think he should be the next President. Second (and more importantly), three-quarters of the Republican electorate desperately want someone other than Romney to be the Republicans’ nominee. Look at how his support dropped by a third at the mere prospect that there could be a  nominee who was just as respectable as Romney, but twice as conservative!

Seventy-five percent of Republicans want someone other than Romney to be their nominee. If a credible conservative can consolidate that vote after the Iowa caucuses or the South Carolina primary (even assuming Romney wins New Hampshire), then Romney is in big trouble. Once their first-choice candidates drop out, Santorum, Bachmann, Cain and Gingrich supporters will look to support another conservative candidate, rather than Romney.

To win the nomination then, Romney has to either win over conservatives who seem to want anyone but him (not likely), OR he has to prevent a credible conservative challenger from emerging. Right now, Romney’s greatest strength is that he can say this: “I can beat Barack Obama.” If there is anyone else in the field who is both more conservative than Mr. Romney and can also say that, then they will win. Romney’s path to victory is as the last man standing.

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