Republicans on Romney Can’t Reconcile Competence With Expediency

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, makes a point during a presidential debate sponsored by Bloomberg and The Washington Post held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Republican primary voters are torn between their confidence in Mitt Romney’s professional competence and doubts about his political character.

Likely caucus and primary participants in Iowa and New Hampshire view the former Massachusetts governor by wide majorities as smart, business-savvy and fit to be president, according to Nov. 10-12 Bloomberg News polls conducted in both states, where the first primary contests will be held.

Yet substantial numbers, almost half in Iowa and two out of five in New Hampshire, also view him as someone who will do or say anything to get elected, “a flip-flopper,” or not a true social conservative.

Those warring impressions help explain how Romney has attained front-runner status in national polls while remaining unable to secure enough backing to break away from his rivals.

When voters look at Romney, “they see the competence, and they see that the problems that are immediately to be solved are in his wheelhouse, but there’s sort of this lurking suspicion about whether they can trust him or that he is going to be their guy on social, moral issues,” says J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the polls.

Abortion, Gay Marriage

In a debate during his successful 2002 campaign for governor, Romney said, “I do not take the position of a pro-life candidate. I am in favor of preserving and protecting a woman’s right to choose.” Since that race, Romney has said his position evolved. At a June 13 CNN debate, he said, “I am firmly pro-life,” and, “I believe in the sanctity of life from the very beginning to the very end.”

Romney’s rhetoric on gay rights also has shifted. During a 1994 Senate run, he wrote a letter to the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts, a gay-rights group whose endorsement he was seeking, stating that he wanted to “make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern.” During his 2008 presidential campaign, in which he appealed for votes from social conservatives, Romney touted his support for a Massachusetts constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

His Mormon faith offers insight into his candidacy’s fault lines.

Just 8 percent of poll respondents in Iowa and 4 percent in New Hampshire say they consider the two-time presidential candidate’s religion to be a disqualifying attribute.

Mormon Faith

That unanimity begins to splinter when asked whether they consider “Mormonism to be part of the Christian tradition” or something else. In Iowa, 51 percent of likely caucus attendees say it is “something else,” while 34 percent in New Hampshire say that.

Romney, 64, wins the backing of 28 percent of likely Iowa caucus goers who say his religion is part of the Christian tradition -- putting him in first place by 9 percentage points in the field of eight candidates. He draws 11 percent backing from those who view it as something else -- moving him into fourth place in Iowa.

Romney’s Mormon faith “does have an impact, even if people think it doesn’t play a role in their choice,” Selzer says. “There is no such impact in New Hampshire.” Those doubts can be compounded by voter concerns over his commitment to such moral and religious issues as opposing abortion rights and gay marriage.

Doubts About Authenticity

Tina Stange, 52, a nurse from Mason City, Iowa, who is also Mormon, considers Romney’s faith a plus. Still, while she views him as intelligent, experienced, competent, and the candidate best able to beat President Barack Obama, Stange’s doubts about Romney’s authenticity and commitment to socially conservative principles are keeping her from embracing him.

“It’s almost like he’s out there trying to find out what the public opinion is so it can be his opinion,” says Stange. “We believe in very firm standards and morals. We believe in the teachings of the church, and there’s no point in voting for a Mormon if he’s not upholding that.”

In Iowa, 48 percent of likely Republican caucus participants say Romney will do or say anything to win, 47 percent say he’s a flip-flopper, and 46 percent say he’s not really a social conservative.

Those voters see his strengths, as well. Three-quarters or more say Romney is qualified to be president, has the business experience to create jobs, or is very smart.

Electability Factor

“My idea is you may have supported something in the past that I don’t agree with, but those were different times, and I’m more concerned with what you’re going to do as president,” says TJ Augustine, a law student and part-time sports referee in Des Moines. “The biggest thing I’m looking for is someone who’s electable -- someone who’s going to stick up for conservative ideas like smaller government and less regulation -- and I think Romney will.”

While New Hampshire Republican primary voters have a more positive view of Romney’s political character, 43 percent say he is a flip-flopper who will do or say anything to win, and 36 percent say he’s not really a social conservative. More than 80 percent of New Hampshire respondents say, as Iowans do, that Romney is qualified to sit in the Oval Office, has the business experience necessary to create jobs, or is very smart.

Overall, the New Hampshire survey shows Romney with a substantial lead, drawing support from 40 percent of likely Republican primary voters, an advantage that totals more than his nearest three competitors combined.

Tied in Iowa

In Iowa, the poll found, Romney is virtually tied with the same three contenders, with backing from 18 percent of likely caucus-goers compared with 20 percent for former fast-food executive Herman Cain, 19 percent for U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, and 17 percent for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Both polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

The results point up the difference in political profile between the two states that may account for Romney’s decisive lead in New Hampshire and his failure to secure one in Iowa.

In New Hampshire, likely Republican primary voters downplayed the role of social issues in their voting decisions, with 54 percent saying gay marriage is “not important” and a 43 percent plurality saying abortion wasn’t. In Iowa, 57 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers call abortion “critical” or “important,” with a 46 percent plurality saying so of gay marriage.

Economy Dominates

In both early-voting states, at least half of voters name jobs, the economy, government spending and debt reduction, and taxes as critical. That could provide Romney with an edge as he emphasizes his business credentials in campaign speeches.

Those issues are influencing Jeff Vanderwerff, 50, of Orange City, Iowa, who is backing Romney. “I know some people are concerned about his conservative credentials, but I think he’s going to govern right of center,” he says. “And if there’s some future challenge out there on the economy, I have far greater confidence that he’s going to handle it with a greater amount of evenhandedness and common sense” than his Republican rivals, says Vanderwerff, a college politics teacher.

Vanderwerff is supporting Romney in spite of his shifts on such issues as abortion rights and, more recently, an Ohio anti-union ballot initiative, both of which he says “call into question his sincerity or authenticity.”

The survey results also show the Massachusetts health-care law Romney signed as governor -- often equated with Obama’s health-care law because both mandate that everyone purchase medical insurance -- continues to plague him.

Opposed to Mandate

In Iowa, 58 percent say past support for a health-insurance mandate would prompt them to “rule out” a candidate. In New Hampshire, 46 percent say it was a disqualifier.

“I have no problem with someone changing your mind; it’s OK to change,” says Matt Hopkins, a sales and marketing executive from Dover, New Hampshire. “The problem I have with Mitt is he never owns up to it, he never says this was a mistake and here’s why,” says Hopkins, 34, who voted for Romney in 2008 and is now supporting Gingrich. “For Romney to try to justify that health care’s been a success in Massachusetts, is asinine.”

Hopkins says Romney’s history of switching sides on big issues would make him less effective at drawing distinctions with Obama.

“There’s no doubt Romney’s a sharp guy,” he says. “But I think Gingrich would make Barack look like a babbling 7-year-old.”

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