As recently as the run-up to the South Carolina primary, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney expressed regret that he’d gone negative against his Republican rivals during the campaign.
“Up till then, Romney’s main objective had been to unite a Republican party that includes both moderates and extreme conservatives,” says political theorist and BMCC political science professor, Geoffrey Kurtz.
Rather than rail against his fellow Republicans, Romney had directed the thrust of his message against President Obama. “Then the battle moved to Florida,” says Kurtz “and all that changed.”
After his loss to Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney realized that to preserve his momentum and win the Republican nomination for president, “he’d need to smash his rivals and Newt Gingrich in particular,” Kurtz says. “So he ran a classic negative campaign in Florida—something voters always complain about but seem to respond to very well.”
The strategic shift paid off in a 14-point margin of victory over Gingrich in the primary and a much-needed shot of adrenalin for the Romney campaign.
But with the Nevada primary in his favor and several primaries still to come, which Romney will prevail going forward—the bridge-builder or the brawler? “Will he return to his broad, upbeat November-oriented message?” wonders Kurtz. “Or will he continue to focus on attacking his Republican rivals?”
That, he says, will depend on the venue: “In some of the upcoming primaries and caucuses, Romney probably has enough of an advantage that he won’t need to go negative. In other contests, notably Gingrich’s home state of Georgia, that might not be the case.”
Romney’s dilemma, then, is to decide when it’s in his best interest to come out swinging, and when he’d be better off dialing back the anti-Gingrich invective and making his appeal to the broader American audience.
Gloves on or off?
It’s not an easy choice. “For Romney, not attacking his Republican rivals could allow the primary campaign to drag on and on, and that could hurt him in November,” says Kurtz.
“Even if he winds up as the nominee, a long, negative primary campaign will almost certainly make him a less attractive candidate to Americans in general.”
On the other hand, if Romney continues to attack Gingrich, “he winds up looking petty and vindictive and taking extremely right-wing positions that turn off more moderate voters,” Kurtz says. That could also be a liability.
As November approaches, Romney faces a second problem. “At the risk of over-generalizing, it’s not clear that Romney is a good match for the American mood,” says Kurtz. “Someone like Romney, who has made his fortune in the finance sector, and is a son of privilege, doesn’t fit the national mood. That could hurt him in the general election.”
Not that Obama isn’t also vulnerable.
“It’s not clear that a former college law professor like Barack Obama fits the national mood either,” Kurtz says. “So we might find ourselves choosing between two candidates who have a hard time speaking to some of the discontent that American voters feel right now.”
One way or another, that discontent will be a powerful factor in the coming election campaign. But with nine months to go before Election Day, there is no way to foretell the outcome with anything approaching certainty.