by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Can a conservative win the presidency if his cultural markings seem alien to too many American voters?
Mitt Romney’s experience indicates that the answer is no. More voters agreed on more key issues with Romney than with Barack Obama. Yet — as has been well publicized — Romney was crushed, 81–18, on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.” Despite first appearances, this isn’t merely a touchy-feely “empathy” question. It’s at least as much a question about cultural cues. The key part of the question isn’t cares, but cares about people like me.
We’ve all heard about the widely reported turnout deficit in 2012 among what Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics accurately described as “largely downscale, Northern, rural whites. In other words, H. Ross Perot voters.” It takes no great powers of observation or analysis to understand that they stayed home, rather than stand in voting lines at the end of a long workday, because although they were disillusioned with Obama they just felt no affinity for the high-finance, starched-shirt, stiff-mannered Romney.
Rick Santorum would have appealed to them. Mike Huckabee, for all his considerable flaws, might well have appealed to them. Scott Walker and maybe John Kasich will have some success appealing to them in 2016. But not Romney. Nor did the elder Bush in 1992, once he was on his own rather than running effectively as Ronald Reagan’s surrogate. …
… The question then becomes how to cobble together a majority by “running the table,” as it were, among the 52 to 54 percent of the country that remains at least open to conservative principles of limited government, strong defense, and traditional values. The numbers fully on board with these principles are considerably lower than a majority; the majority is available only to a candidate who can both inspire those fully on board and make the principles attractive to a floating 10 to 14 percent who just want to feel they are heard, understood, and appreciated.