For Republicans, It’s a Matter of Head or Heart

by Stuart Rothenberg November 30, 2011 · 9:57 AM EST

Republicans are now chewing over their party’s potential presidential nominee for 2012, and a dramatic division has become apparent between GOP insiders and the grass roots. But it’s not primarily a difference of ideology, though there is an element of that. Instead, the split centers on electability.

So far, three-quarters of the party’s grass roots has declined every opportunity to support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. After each anti-Romney candidate has flopped, another has emerged, with Romney making little or no headway expanding his support.

Given this dynamic, it could be a while until the Republican rank and file decides to hold its collective nose and grudgingly support the former Bay State governor — if it ever does.

For the Republican grass roots, the current GOP race is about finding a consistent conservative who favors smaller government and lower taxes and believes that President Barack Obama and the national media represent the forces of darkness. For them, that is not Mitt Romney.

But most GOP insiders whom I talk with have a very different perspective on their party’s presidential race.

Many of them are quite conservative, and if you examine their issue positions — on taxes, spending, national security, energy and even many cultural issues — they aren’t much different from the grass roots’ positions.

It’s misleading to portray the insiders as a band of Rockefeller Republicans. All of them would be happy to vote for Ronald Reagan again, or even Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, were he in the GOP race. Romney certainly would not be their ideal candidate.

But these Republicans — many of them political strategists and operatives, lobbyists and party veterans — see the nomination as merely the first step in the fight to dethrone the defending champion, Obama. They regard Romney as by far the most likely Republican candidate, possibly the only potential nominee, who can beat the president next year.

Many officeholders, operatives and other insiders place a high value on electability, while most grass-roots activists either place a much lower value on it or, alternatively, choose to believe that their preferred candidates have as good a chance of beating Obama as Romney has.

The idea that Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) or Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Herman Cain or former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) would be as formidable against Obama as Romney would be is hard to support on the basis of current survey data. Romney does better against the president than do other active GOP candidates in almost every survey.

CNN’s Nov. 11-13 survey, for example, showed Romney leading Obama 51 percent to 47 percent, while Gingrich trailed the president by 8 points and Cain and Perry each trailed by 10 points. Among independents, Romney led by 8 points, while the others trailed the president.

But polls and logic won’t convince some anti-Romney Republicans, particularly the true believers who last cycle picked Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary, Ken Buck over Jane Norton in Colorado’s GOP Senate primary and Sharron Angle over anyone in Nevada’s GOP Senate contest.

The question is whether there are enough true believers to nominate someone other than Romney, thereby putting up a weaker general election candidate against Obama. In other words, is this 1964, when Republicans listened to their heart over their head? That year, of course, President Lyndon Johnson looked unbeatable, so the Republican nomination didn’t have the value it is likely to have next year.

For conservatives who are also veterans of the nation’s capital, the choice is becoming harder to deny.

“Many of us are coming to the conclusion that although ideology matters, the choice comes down to getting a candidate who is closer to our values [than President Obama] and can win,” said one veteran Republican who initially backed another Republican hopeful but is clearly moving toward Romney as the Iowa caucuses approach.

“The stakes are too high for us to pick the wrong nominee for the 2012 election. Just think about possible Supreme Court vacancies over the next four years,” argued another longtime Capitol Hill veteran who has not yet picked a horse in the GOP presidential race but clearly thinks Romney has the best chance of derailing the president’s re-election bid.

A third Republican veteran, who is neutral in the presidential contest, echoed the same point, arguing that beating Obama is the No. 1 priority for most Republican voters at the end of the day.

“But it’s not just that we are picking someone to lead the country — we have to live with this person every night on TV for four years,” said the observer about why Romney might well have the advantage in the race, eventually.

Few endorsements actually matter in a presidential race, but they do tell us something about how party insiders evaluate the candidates and their prospects. The former Massachusetts governor has more endorsements from Congressional Members than all other GOP hopefuls combined.

While a few are unapologetic conservatives, and many are from reliably red states, a substantial number of endorsements come from current and former officeholders from competitive states.

That list includes former Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and John Sununu of New Hampshire, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sens. Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), former Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Reps. Aaron Schock (Ill.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Nan Hayworth (N.Y.) and Jim Gerlach (Pa.), just to mention a sampling.

Those insiders understand the nature of Romney’s appeal, or rather the problems that would be created for them and their party if the GOP nominates someone other than Romney next year.

Most voters will not focus on electability in the GOP race, which is why talk of Romney’s inevitable nomination is premature and why he must continue to hit on conservative themes in his effort to become an acceptable alternative for the party’s grass roots.

Ultimately, however, Romney’s best argument may be that half a loaf is better than none. Most party insiders already believe that, but he somehow needs to convince enough grass-roots conservatives of it so that he can sneak across the finish line, whether in Iowa or in subsequent contests.

Barry Goldwater’s famous 1964 campaign slogan was “In your heart, you know he’s right.” He went on to lose 44 states. Often, in politics, the head is a better guide than the heart.