COUNCIL BLUFFS, IOWA—Mitt Romney seems on the inevitable path toward locking up the GOP nomination, even if he doesn't win tomorrow in Iowa. He is nearly assured victory next week in New Hampshire and he has the organization to last him through the long haul, something the rising Rick Santorum cannot claim. But interviews with Iowans who have attended his events suggest that Romney is struggling to draw in new supporters—not just those who supported him last time he ran for president.
Romney was in an enviable position for all of 2011. He has been the steady leader of the field, securing around 25 percent support in national polls time after time as support for the other candidates goes up and down alongside him. Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry would surely trade their momentary leads for that kind of consistency. However, Romney has yet to show that he can break past this base level of support to bring in a larger group of backers.
What's striking about Romney's poll numbers is how closely they track his performance the last time he competed in Iowa. His 25 percent of the vote share in the 2008 caucuses was enough for a second-place finish, but it wasn't enough for him to overcome Mike Huckabee, who captured 34 percent in a last-minute surge.
Returning for one final push after largely ignoring Iowa this year, Romney has been drawing large crowds over the past week. A sea of reporters and townsfolk left little room to breathe at The Family Table restaurant in Atlantic yesterday afternoon. Some supporters who decided to start off 2012 by traveling to see Romney in Council Bluffs were left stranded in the entryway as a speaker pumped in Romney's speech from a room on the building's second floor.
But while these swelling crowds seem to indicate rising support for Romney's base in the Hawkeye state, talking with attendees reveals a different dynamic. Rather than building on his past support, Romney is just coasting along with the voters he captured last time around. The people who said they intend to caucus for Romney tomorrow night were largely the same people who lent him their support in 2008.
For instance, Barbara and Gordon Reisinger trekked 45 miles from their home in Red Oak to hear Romney in Atlantic yesterday. The scene was different than the last time they'd seen the governor in 2008 at event attended by fewer than 10 people in their hometown. Gordon caucused for Romney last time and hasn't strayed since. "I believe that he is one of the few choices in America today to get us back on the right path," he said of Romney.
Bob and Lucille Williams are new to Council Bluffs—they moved after the Missouri River floods this past summer—but their views on Romney haven't changed. "I was [a supporter] four years ago, and I still am," Bob said. Lucille supported Herman Cain for a spell earlier in the year, but has firmly returned to Mitt's corner since the allegations of sexual harassment derailed his campaign. "[Cain] seems to be extreme in either direction," said Lucille of Romney. "We lean toward the conservative, but not the extreme." Romney has been helped by the lingering effects from his last run. The leftover infrastructure and goodwill is one of the many reasons Republicans are known for traditionally nominating the next-in-line candidate. But Romney needs to hope for a significant chunk of the people who caucused for one of his opponents in 2008 to turn their sights onto his second campaign. Relying on his previous supporters won't be enough to win the nomination, and certainly not enough to inspire the passion needed to dislodge an incumbent president in the general election.