By Eugene Robinson
OK, now it’s settled, right? I mean, it must be settled by now. Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee. Eat your peas, Republicans, and then fall in line, because Romney’s the guy. Right?
Even at this point, after Romney trounced Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary and the Nevada caucuses, there are some fairly compelling reasons for Republicans to pause before bowing to the party establishment’s decision that Mitt must be It.
First is the fact that so many GOP voters still can’t summon much enthusiasm for their likely standard-bearer. In a poll released last week, the Pew Research Center found that an incredible 52 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents consider the field of candidates only fair or poor. Just 46 percent assessed the field as good or excellent—compared to 68 percent who were satisfied with the contenders at the same point in the battle for the nomination four years ago.
In Florida, exit polls confirmed Pew’s findings: Nearly four in 10 GOP voters said they were unhappy with their choices. It is reasonable to assume that many Republicans who didn’t bother to vote—and thus were not sampled in exit polls—are probably even less enthusiastic.
Last May, as the roster of candidates was shaping up, just 43 percent of Republicans thought the field was fair or poor, according to Pew. In other words, the better Republican voters come to know these candidates, including Romney, the less they like them.
Still, somebody is going to get nominated. At this point, Romney has shown he can beat Gingrich almost everywhere. But that “almost” is important.
Gingrich won big in South Carolina. And while Romney rolled up huge margins in the southern and central parts of Florida, Gingrich beat him in the panhandle counties that border Alabama and Georgia—a part of the state, demographically and culturally, that isn’t South Beach but, rather, just plain South.
This is significant because the South is the Republican Party’s heartland. Romney has shown in other contests that he can put a check mark in every ideological box—that despite Gingrich’s taunt of “Massachusetts moderate,” he can still win the support of voters who call themselves “very conservative” or who say they are tea party members. But maybe the relevant pejorative is the “Massachusetts” part.
So far, Romney has not shown that he can connect with and excite voters in the South the way Gingrich does. If the bruised, battered, underfunded Gingrich campaign can survive long enough—and if Gingrich can rediscover the in-your-face mojo that gave him such a lift in the South Carolina debates—he could potentially beat Romney in Georgia and Tennessee on Super Tuesday, March 6, and in Alabama and Mississippi a week later.
At that point, if I were a GOP pooh-bah, I’d have to worry about going into the November elections with a candidate at the top of the ticket who had received so little love from the party’s most loyal supporters.
Maybe the Gingrich insurgency will prove to be nothing more than a sad, divisive ego trip. Maybe Romney will show that he can win—or at least compete—in the South. Realistically, chances are that his superior resources, organization and discipline will prevail in the end.
Then what? Well, if you believe the polls, Romney probably loses to President Obama in the fall.
A new Washington Post poll, released Monday, shows that Obama leads Romney by 51 percent to 45 percent among registered voters. The poll also showed that Obama’s approval rating is at 50 percent, the first time it has reached that benchmark since May, right after Osama bin Laden was killed. On protecting the middle class and dealing with taxes, international affairs and terrorism, voters believe Obama would do a better job than Romney.
But perhaps the most important figure—found not in the poll, but in Labor Department statistics released Friday—is 8.3 percent. That’s the unemployment rate for January, and it is the lowest since February 2009, right after Obama took office.
Romney’s central argument for the presidency is that he will do a better job of managing the economy. Despite their overall preference for Obama, many voters buy that premise. But if the unemployment rate continues to fall, it won’t matter whether Republicans go with the safe bet or the mercurial firebrand. Economic recovery almost surely equals four more years.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group