The “pivot” came later than many outsiders anticipated. But Mitt Romney’s speech to accept the Republican presidential nomination showed that he has finally moved beyond the GOP primaries and into a full-throttle race for the middle.
By the time Democrats get to Charlotte, N.C., for their convention next week, the rival they have depicted as an out-of-touch supply-sider may already have beaten them to the centre.
At the outset of this race, Republicans figured the 2012 presidential contest would be a “base” election. They did not mean vile, though it has at times been that. Rather, they thought Mr. Romney could win on the strength of the GOP grassroots alone.
Though President Barack Obama would monopolize young voters, blacks and Hispanics, GOP strategists assumed turnout among those groups would be lower than in 2008. In turn, a more motivated GOP base would vote in larger numbers than for John McCain.
By the end of the Republican convention this week, the playbook had been much amended. The party is still counting on disaffected “Obama girls” and other 2008 supporters to stay home in November. But if Tampa revealed anything, it is that Republicans now know they need to get voters disappointed with Mr. Obama to actually cast a ballot for Mr. Romney.
“The people we’ve got to win in this election, by and large, voted for Barack Obama,” Republican guru Karl Rove told a private post-convention breakfast attended by about 70 elite GOP donors in Tampa on Friday, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
There is still palpable goodwill toward Mr. Obama among most people who voted for him, even if they are disappointed with his presidency. They are reluctant to abandon him because it would mean giving up on the powerful sentiment he inspired in 2008.
Mr. Romney’s Thursday night speech was an acknowledgment that he will not make headway among these voters without speaking to their predicament. They need to be eased into changing sides.
“Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president. … I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed,” Mr. Romney said. “But his promises gave way to disappointment and division. This isn’t something we have to accept. Now is the moment when we can do something. And with your help, we will do something.”
The speech was almost entirely devoid of red meat. Mr. Romney did not get to the usual GOP check list – no new taxes, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage and freedom of religion – until the end of his speech. And he ran through them almost too fast to notice.
It was perhaps a sign that Mr. Romney feels secure enough atop his party that he need not indulge the base at every turn. In that, the speech was probably the clearest indication thus far of what a Romney presidency would look like: bland and businesslike.
“The whole point of his campaign is not to be the transformational leader Obama promised to be in 2008, but rather a Mr. Fix-it sewing patches on the nation’s holes,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato wrote in a post-convention commentary. “Given the state of the economy, the Mr. Fix-it role might be enough if the nation ultimately decides it wants to move on from Obama.”
Studies suggest that less than 5 per cent of the U.S. electorate is comprised of true swing voters who are not predisposed to vote either Democratic or Republican. If that it is true, it helps explain why both parties spend so much time catering to their bases. (The interminable quest for donations is another big reason for the endless pandering.)
Even so, presidential elections are fought in a handful of swing states, where so-called “persuadable” voters are more numerous than the national figures suggest. There are more women than men among them. And on Thursday, Mr. Romney aimed to speak directly at them.
“When my mom ran for the Senate, my dad was there for her every step of the way,” Mr. Romney said. “I can still see her saying, in her beautiful voice: ‘Why should women have any less say than men about the great decisions facing our nation?’”
The Republican nominee continued: “As governor of Massachusetts, I chose a woman lieutenant governor and a woman chief of staff. Half of my cabinet and senior officials were women. And in business, I mentored and supported great women leaders who went on to run great companies.”
Measured against the 2008 Republican convention, this one was less successful. The television audience was down sharply. The speeches were utilitarian. And few analysts are expecting Mr. Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan to get a bounce in the polls, as Mr. McCain and Sarah Palin experienced in the wake of their convention. (It proved ephemeral, anyway.)
What’s more, on Friday, Americans were talking more about Clint Eastwood’s unusual endorsement of Mr. Romney than the convention’s the main event.
Yet, Mr. Romney emerges from the convention with much more money than his Democratic rival and allies like Mr. Rove promising to spend hundreds of millions more to help win over those “persuadable” voters.