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.”
The Latino vote, on the other hand, is a real issue for Romney. Anti-immigration sentiment in the Republican Party has alienated Latino voters. Even though Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had advocated comprehensive immigration reform, the GOP’s damaged brand among Latinos caused him to perform far worse among them than did President Bush. (In 2004 Bush won 44 percent of Latinos, McCain received only 31 percent of their vote.) The sharpest minds in the GOP—from Karl Rove down—know that if they do not correct this Republicans will be at a growing disadvantage as the Latino population booms. But Romney, desperately seeking issues on which he can credibly claim to be more conservative than his primary opponents, has doubled down on anti-immigration rhetoric. He has attacked Texas Governor Rick Perry for favoring a state-level law that would make children brought here illegally eligible for in-state college tuition, and gone after Newt Gingrich for saying that after twenty-five years, a law-abiding, taxpaying resident with family here should not be deported if she came illegally.
A recent Obama campaign memo boasts, “According to recent polls, the two leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, may very well have already sealed the political fate of their party with the Hispanic electorate—the fastest growing voting bloc in the country. Their extreme rhetoric on immigration during the televised debates has rejected our history as a nation of immigrants and alienated millions of Hispanic voters nationally.”
Republican strategists concede it will make it hard for the Republican nominee to win over Latinos. “I think it’s more likely to be the case that immigration is a problem than the Sandra Fluke stuff,” says Dayton. “It’s not plausible that Mitt Romney’s going to be held accountable for something he didn’t say, whereas Romney and Republicans overall are on a dangerous trajectory with Latinos that really challenges putting together winning coaitions in some parts of the country.”
But Obama faces his own potential problems with Latinos. Like everyone, they are disappointed by the slow economic recovery. And Obama, while stepping up border security and deportations, hasn’t made a meaningful push for immigration reform.
Republicans are trying to win over Latinos on an economic appeal. Romney’s campaign frequently blasts Latino-targeted press releases. Polls suggest this has yet to work.
And Democrats are responding that Republican proposals to shred the social safety net will hurt Hispanics. “Mitt Romney’s economic plan embraces the ‘cut, ap and balance’ approach in the House that will require cuts to Medicare,” said Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) in a Friday conference call on the upcoming Puerto Rico primary. “And he supports Paul Ryan’s plan that would end Medicare as know it. The Ryan plan will shift the cost of healthcare onto seniors.”
Running against the Ryan plan, and Romney’s support for it, is a good strategy with virtually any demographic.