Many liberals, and increasingly even mainstream journalists, believe that Republican candidates—including likely nominee Mitt Romney—are doing irreparable damage to their general election prospects. MSNBC hosts such as Rachel Maddow gleefully chortled for hours on end that Romney will be radioactive to women in November because of his failure to reprimand Rush Limbaugh for calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a prostitute after she testified to Congress in favor of health insurance covering contraception. ABC’s The Note ran a recent dispatch titled, “Are Republican Hopefuls Swinging Too Far Right?”
“Although running to the right is part of Republican primary politics, some are starting to worry,” writes ABC’s Alicia Tejada. “With Santorum’s surge, Romney has been forced to move to the right, too, taking positions his supporters admit may make it harder to win the votes independents in the fall if he is the nominee.”
But is it true? In some limited instances it is, such as extreme Republican stances on immigration alienating Latinos. But in general, eight months is a very long time in politics. No one should think that a minor kerfuffle such as Limbaughgate would determine the 2012 election.
Most swing voters and irregular voters who make decisions at the last minute about whether to vote and who to vote for are not political junkies. They do not pay close attention to political shenanigans in March. The sort of people who care what Romney didn’t say about what Rush Limbaugh said about a law student are already partisans of the left or right. They are not swing voters, and if they are, they will have moved on to more current or significant issues by November. There were probably some Republicans in the spring of 2008 that were convinced Barack Obama would never be elected president with a pastor like Jeremiah Wright. But voters don’t hold politicians responsible for what someone else said or did. If Obama could survive being associated with Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers, Romney can survive this. “Just like Bill Ayers made a lot of noise in the summer of ’08 at the expense of Obama but failed to matter by November, this election will not be won or lost on Rush Limbaugh, contraception or Sandra Fluke,” says Leonardo Alcivar, a Republican consultant who has worked on several presidential campaigns.
Like Wright and Ayers, linking Romney to Limbaugh is useful for Democrats because it makes their base see a relatively reasonable-seeming opponent as a hostile culture warrior. “I just don’t think there are that many swing voters voting on the issue of contraception that view anything said by Mitt Romney as that offensive or even problematic,” says Soren Dayton, a veteran of John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “It’s a great way to raise money for Democrats, I think it’s really smart, but it’s not about swing voters. It’s a way to turn up the outrage machine.”
The Democrats’ best bet to make Limbaugh’s comments stick to Romney is to make it part of a larger character issue: Mitt Romney the gutless panderer wouldn’t stand up for what he knows is right. That’s what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel attempted on Thursday when he said Romney “doesn’t have the fortitude, the strength or the character in my view to stand up to Rush Limbaugh.”