A favorite trope of election coverage is to compare the current race to past elections. Is Barack Obama Jimmy Carter in 1980? Is 2012 a repeat of the 2004 election? Or is this year going to be just like 1896? With Mitt Romney, however, there's a far easier comparison: Mitt Romney in 2008. In the last presidential election cycle, Romney faced many of the same criticisms he does now: He was accused of being a flip-flopper and assailed for his religion and personal wealth. His failure to respond effectively to these accusations—and his fateful decision to stake his campaign on a win in Iowa—were his downfall.
But Romney seems to have learned some lessons. After investing heavily in Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee trounced the former Massachusetts governor at the last minute in a surprise win. Huckabee’s unexpected victory had a lot to do with the odd structure of the Iowa caucuses. In a caucus, voters don’t have the flexibility of voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in a quiet post office. Registered Republicans in the state's 1,784 precincts meet at a set time and place—sometimes at people's houses—and hear from representatives of each candidate before casting their votes. The process gives campaigners a last-minute opportunity to sway undecided voters and tends to favor candidates with passionate and persuasive volunteers. In 2008, Romney's money was no match for the dedication of Huckabee supporters, and his loss five days later in New Hampshire sealed his fate.
This time, Romney has shifted more resources into New Hampshire, which has a more traditional and straightforward process for selecting presidential nominees. It seems to be paying off. While the rest of the candidates are going all out in Iowa, Romney spent the holidays in the Granite State. As a result, Romney is currently ahead of Ron Paul by 16 percentage points in New Hampshire, according to the most recent Public Policy Polling survey. Despite paying less attention to Iowa caucuses he is nonetheless poised to place second in Iowa.
When it comes to his wealth and change of heart of defining issues, Romney is fortunate to be in good company this go-around. Most of the candidates can’t complain about their financial standing, and Newt Gingrich has flip-flopped just as much as Romney. Juxtaposed against Gingrich’s adulterous past, Ron Paul’s racist newsletters, and Rick Perry’s debate performances, Mitt Romney’s political miscalculations and personal details seem insignificant. Romney has also learned how to deflect criticism for changing positions on major issues: responding as little as possible. Another advantage of having run before: There's less dirt left to dig up, and all the old criticisms seem to have lost some of their punch.
However, there is one thing that hasn't changed much since 2008: The Republican base is still deeply dissatisfied with its choices, which is symptomatic of the larger disconnect between the Republican elite and the base. The elites want to win the White House and see Romney as their surest bet, but the base wants someone they believe in.
Romney may have figured out that focusing in New Hampshire in 2012 is the key to his nomination, but the base is still looking for the grassroots magic that candidates like Huckabee, Paul, and Obama can inspire. While second time may be the charm for Romney in the primary, Republican voters don't feel so lucky.