THE BLOG

Mitt and the Republican Grassroots

02/22/2012 04:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2012
  • Dave Helfert Professor of Political Communication, Johns Hopkins and George Mason Universities

Poor Mitt Romney must be as frustrated as a neutered tomcat on a kitten farm. He's appeared to have the Republican nomination pretty well locked up for months, but hasn't been able to take a victory lap and start getting dressed for the November election because his primary opponents won't ever admit defeat. Even after Romney victories, they've taken off immediately to start campaigning in the next primary or caucus state.

It isn't that the other candidates are immortal or obtuse. Mitt's problem is that they represent activist grassroots of the Republican Party that simply refuse to sit down and be quiet this year. These true believers have been part of the GOP coalition for decades. Forty years ago, they were Richard Nixon's 'Great Silent Majority.' In the 1980s, they became Reagan Democrats. In 1988, George H.W. managed to keep them in the fold for a while, at least, and after the Clinton years, George W. managed to turn a blue-blood pedigree into a blue-collar persona and brought them back.

But today, the activists are tired of feeling like the girl who was OK to hook up with but never got invited to the dance. They've had it with election year promises to address their concerns about government spending and congressional earmarks, gay marriage, gun rights, abortion and illegal immigrants and then having absolutely nothing happen.

They've been told for years to be afraid because people who don't look or sound like them are sneaking around trying to take things away from them. They've been told their own government is the enemy. They've been told they need to be angry about practically everything. And they got the message. They're angry. It brought us the Tea Party revolt in 2009 and the Tea Party election of 2010. And now, with the rise of the Tea Party and its outsized influence, they're feeling the power -- and they like it.

So when the Republican establishment keeps trying to tell them that Mitt Romney is their guy in 2012; 'He has the resume, he's moderate enough to win the general election, and besides, it's his turn,' these different clumps of Republican grassroots: social conservatives, evangelicals, small government conservatives and libertarians, have all responded, "Nuh Uh!" And they're dancing with who brung 'em: social conservatives and evangelicals with Rick Santorum, small government conservatives and libertarians with Ron Paul, and the 'generally pissed about everything' bloc with Newt Gingrich.

Mitt Romney's major problem is, although he's been able to survive a string of challengers reminiscent of the Star Wars cantina, he hasn't been able to defeat the idea of challenges. He hasn't established himself as the Republican Alpha Male; the one nobody messes with. He's never been able to break through a 30-40 percent ceiling of support that's been there since he started the race and clinch the deal with Republican voters.

The fact that he's still vulnerable to challenge -- this time by Rick Santorum -- may finally prove fatal. If Santorum beats Romney in his putative home state of Michigan, Santorum could embarrass and damage Romney enough to gain serious momentum into Super Tuesday. And if that happens, Goodnight Sweet Prince.

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