by Joel B. Pollak 11 Nov 2012
In late 2011, long before the first caucuses and primaries of the
2012 election, I had the opportunity to speak with someone high up in
Mitt Romney’s finance world, and warned him that the conservative base
wasn’t warming to the party’s presumptive nominee. The longer Romney
keeps the Tea Party at arm’s length, I said, the tougher his chances at
winning the general election, presuming he can win the Republican
Nonsense, I was told. Those people will all come around in the general election. They will vote for Romney to get rid of Obama.
Perhaps, I answered. But don’t be so sure--right now there are some
who would rather sit through another four years of Obama than endure a
Republican who they imagine will sell them out at the first opportunity.
The time for Romney reach out to the conservative base is now, before
it is too late.
In the end, Romney did not reach out. Many in the Tea Party grass
roots did, eventually, back the Republican nominee. Many came to like
and admire Romney, especially after his strong performance in the
debates. The renewed enthusiasm of conservatives for the political fight
encouraged many--myself included--to believe Republicans would see
strong turnout at the polls. But there were millions who had checked out
The traditional pattern is for candidates to appeal to their party’s
base in the primary and then to pivot to the center in the general
election. The danger is that statements made in the primary will be used
against the candidate later.
But the danger of not appealing to the base is that they
will vote for other candidates, or stay home. Romney both feared
association with the Tea Party and knew that he faced a weak field. So
he held back.
Romney had bought into the mainstream media hype about the Tea
Party--which reached a fever pitch of hysteria during the debt ceiling
negotiations of July 2011. He saw association with the Tea Party as
potentially toxic, and limited his contact with the movement. The
suspicion was mutual, and there were a few early protests by Tea Party
groups against him. He did little to heal the breach until he had won
Contrary to mainstream media spin, Romney never really “ran right” in
the primary. The one issue on which he took an awkwardly hard line was
immigration. He did so partly to thwart challenges by Texas Gov. Rick
Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (whose reformist policy,
while defensible, suffered from the assumption that those who opposed it
were heartless). It was the one issue on which he felt forced to
Romney likely paid for that hard line in the general election,
bleeding Hispanic votes to President Barack Obama, even losing among
Cuban-Americans in Florida, traditionally a solid Republican
constituency. Had Romney solidified his bona fides with the GOP’s
conservative grass roots, he may not have felt the need to overreach on
immigration. He also might have enjoyed a shorter primary.
And in the end, Romney lost what were probably Tea Party votes, as
well as a potential army of Tea Party volunteers (some of whom showed up
anyway and were responsible for his strong showing in places like
Roanoke, VA). The GOP even let CNN appropriate the Tea Party label,
running its own “Tea Party” debate. A few Tea Party candidates did
win--others lost badly--but the movement never really mobilized.
Lesson for the future: ignore the Tea Party grass roots at your peril.