The press has offered basically two explanations for Mitt Romney’s failure to win over conservative voters. The first is ideological: conservatives know that Romney was once a moderate and they don’t consider his swing to the right sincere. The second is personal: whether because of his money, his faith or his hair, average Republican voters just don’t relate to him.
There’s clearly something to both of these arguments, but they don’t fully explain Romney’s struggles. After all, moderates-turned-conservatives have won GOP nominations in the past. George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2004, all won their party’s nomination despite histories of deep tension with the conservative movement. Steve Forbes, who had spent most of his life as a Rockefeller Republican, amassed so much conservative support in the run-up to the 2000 campaign that he briefly challenged George W. Bush from the right. Republicans also have rallied behind candidates from elite economic backgrounds (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush) and candidates uncomfortable speaking about their faith (George H.W. Bush, Dole, McCain).
There’s a third explanation for Romney’s woes: He’s just not selling what conservative Republicans most want to buy. Going into this campaign, I suspect, Romney and his advisers figured it would be the perfect confluence of man and moment. Americans are obsessed with restoring jobs. Economic management, Romney likes to say, is his “wheelhouse.” As he put it last year, “That is what I know and what I do. I’ve had experience in turning things around that are going in the wrong direction.” From management consulting to the Olympics to the state of Massachusetts, Romney describes himself as a man who through a combination of smarts, toughness and pragmatism, nurses struggling enterprises back to health.