To Flop or Not to Flop: That is the General Election Question

Time to take an intermission from predicting paths to the GOP nomination and imagine what the GOP's general election campaign could look like. Let's take the two most likely nominees. It's relatively easy to imagine how Gingrich would campaign if he became the GOP candidate: the same way he's campaigned for the last few decades. One of Newt Gingrich's defining qualities as a politician is his unwavering confidence in his own ideas. Part of Gingrich's appeal is when you vote for him, you know what you're going to get. This appeal is also why many assume Gingrich will not ultimately be nominated—the Democratic and Republican elite both think the general public won't like what they see.

It is much harder to imagine how a Romney candidacy would unfold. As noted by Christine O’Donnell, who endorsed Mitt Romney last night, Romney's platform has been ideologically consistent since the GOP primaries in 2008. The reason Romney has been been “consistent since he changed his mind” is a symptom of how presidential primaries work. In 2008, only 30 percent of eligible voters—a record-breaking turnout—voted in the Democratic and Republican primaries. The small fraction of the population that votes in the primaries consists of the most ideologically extreme members of either party, which is why—strategically, absent accusations of flip-flopping and analyses of his character—Romney was smart to go right-wing prior to becoming a career presidential candidate. But if he gets the nomination, Romney’s right-wing consistency then becomes a liability given that the pool of likely voters is more moderate in a general election. In 2008, John McCain suffered because he failed to come to the center, though he also faced the larger problem of being lumped in with Bush and failed to capture the zeitgeist as successfully as the Obama campaign. Romney will have to decide whether he wants to go back to his popular, moderate gubernatorial ways and risk the Democratic National Committee hitting him with an endless string of flip-flopping ads, or stay the conservative course and risk losing much-needed support from moderates and independents.

We are still speculating who the GOP nominee will be and the primary hasn’t even officially begun, so conjecture on electoral strategy months from now might be a stretch. However, given the number of DNC ads aimed at Romney this early in the election cycle, the Obama campaign is already imagining what a Romney nomination would mean. You can be sure the Obama campaign would much prefer that Mitt Romney remains the “consistent since he changed his mind” candidate instead of the one who flopped back to the center.