The punditocracy has achieved consensus: given the latest crop of national horse-race polls, Mitt Romney can no longer hope to claim the Republican presidential nomination by default; he has no choice but to knock off Rick Perry. There’s just no real consensus on how exactly he should do it.
A few of the current ideas and their problems: casting Perry as a “career politician” may not be the most compelling message coming from Romney, who probably emerged from the womb with his hair neatly parted and a five-point plan for his first year of life. Repeatedly mentioning that Perry was once a Democrat is a clever idea, but no primary voter is out there chewing his cuticles at the prospect of liberal exploits from a President Perry. (Given Commonwealth Care, the same probably can’t be said of Romney.) The “wait it out, let Perry implode” and “maybe Sarah Palin will save us” strategies aren’t exactly proactive. In fact, the one fertile area for sowing distrust of Perry in Republican primary voters might just be Social Security.
To understand why, it’s best to start with a look at the primary calendar. (I’m assuming the states will hold their contests in the traditional sequence.) Romney’s first headache will be Iowa. He can’t really compete there, but he needs Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann to soak up enough of the activist enthusiasm to prevent Perry from getting momentum from a strong finish. If Perry wins, it instantly puts Romney up against that. Next is New Hampshire, where Romney has cultivated strong support, which is reasonable to assume he’ll hold on to in the primary. Jon Huntsman, who astonishingly seems to shrink in the polls every week, is the only other option for the Granite State’s moderate electorate. Next is South Carolina, which is pure Perry country. Romney’s going to get creamed, end of story. After that is Nevada, where Romney’s Mormon roots should deliver him a strong showing. And then, Florida. It’s a big state, and the first contest where it’s not clear yet who has the advantage. Florida could end up deciding the nominee. And Florida is full of seniors.
If Romney can convince older Republican voters that a President Perry would be a threat to their Social Security checks, you better believe they’ll reconsider their allegiance. And the much ballyhooed Gallup data indicate that Republican and Republican-leaning seniors are some of Perry’s key constituencies. Beside Southerners, the demographic that supported Perry over Romney by the largest margin (40%–16%) was Republicans age 65 and up. This dynamic is only slightly less pronounced in CNN’s latest poll, which finds the 50-plus crowd favoring Perry 36%–19%, and a new Quinnipiac survey, which puts the respective support among those 55 and older at 28%–16% in Perry’s advantage.
Of course, if Romney rides out as a shining paladin of the social safety net, the activist base of the Republican Party will punish him. So here’s how he’d have to do it: Romney needs to make the case that Perry would be eviscerated by the Democratic Mediscare Machine in a general election. He needs to say, Look what Rick Perry said about Social Security! His heart’s in the right place, but they’re going to fustigate the poor guy. I don’t know if that’s the sweeping self-definition Joe and Bill Galston seem to be suggesting, but it certainly plays to Romney’s first, last and best argument: electability.
Romney could also employ one of his logistical strengths: shadowy (and completely legal) campaign-finance maneuvers. Team Romney has been consistently ahead of the curve in the dark arts of moving money around. Last year, it used state PACs to funnel vast amounts of cash to Romney’s national campaign in waiting. This year, Romney’s SuperPAC collected a million-dollar donation from a once anonymous donor through a phantom corporation. They’re an innovative bunch, and there’s going to be a lot of loosely affiliated or unaffiliated money flying around to help Romney’s campaign. There’s no reason those groups couldn’t run a formidable Social Security fear campaign on Romney’s behalf, plastering the Florida market (or wherever) with anti-Perry ads in the weeks before a primary.
It’s that or try to convince voters he’s more authentic, more conservative than Perry. For Romney, that’s not much of a choice.