Romney Just Don't Understand

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at the Royal Oak Theater in Royal Oak, Mich., Monday, Feb. 27, 2012.

Mitt Romney makes his final pitch to Michigan:

“Sen. Santorum has shown himself to be an economic lightweight,” Romney said. “And I don’t think people want to nominate an economic lightweight to go up against the president, who also is an economic lightweight and has it made it hard for America to get working again.”

This is a perfect summation of Mitt Romney’s problem in the Republican presidential primary. There’s no doubt that Romney has a better handle on economic issues than Rick Santorum, just as there was never any doubt that the former Massachusetts governor was more competent than his previous competitors. But Republican voters aren’t looking for a consultant-in-chief; they want someone who can communicate their values. On a good day, Romney can fake it well, and if this were a less ideological field of candidates, that might have been enough.

Instead, Romney has faced men and women who believe the dogma, and as such, can connect to the ordinary Republicans who form the base of the party. For most of the nomination contest, Romney could count on general incompetence (Rick Perry) or unlikability (Newt Gingrich) to break that connection. And if the candidates didn’t destroy themselves, Romney and his supporters would unleash a torrent of ads and attacks to finish the job.

Unfortunately for Romney,  Santorum isn’t incompetent and he doesn’t inspire immediate dislike (at least, not among Republicans). More importantly, because Santorum has had the time to build a sustained connection with Republican voters, he’s managed to withstand the cascade of attacks from Romney and his surrogates. To wit, in the most recent survey of Michigan voters—from Public Policy Polling—Santorum leads the field 38 percent to Romney's 37 percent. Among everyone polled on Monday, Santorum had a 39–34 advantage; for folks who already voted, he had an advantage of 41–31. The momentum for Santorum is so clear that Nate Silver has projected a tie.

In other words, even after clogging the Michigan airwaves with anti-Santorum attacks, Romney is still in a tight—and possibly losing—race with the former Pennsylvania senator. Indeed, were Michigan holding this election on Wednesday or Thursday, there’s a good chance that Romney would have fallen behind for a second time.

I’ve long been skeptical that there is a large “anti-Romney” segment of the GOP electorate; Republicans don’t hate Romney, they’re just not convinced that he’s one of them. And as a result, it seems that Michigan residents, like South Carolinians before them, are prepared to take a chance on someone they believe.