Mitt Romney is following in his famous father’s footsteps. This was certainly not his intent.Back in the mid-’60s, Michigan Gov. George Romney was an aspiring Republican presidential candidate who alienated party conservatives and drew his support mainly from upscale, highly educated moderates. Nearly a half century later, Mitt the son is an aspiring candidate who craves acceptance from party conservatives. He positions himself far to the right of father George. And yet, just like George, he continues to draw his support mainly from upscale, highly educated moderates.
Such was the case again last night, in the Illinois primary. The good news for Mitt is that he trounced Rick Santorum by 12 percentage points; as comic actor-producer Albert Brooks quipped on Twitter, “Romney did so well in Illinois, he did a posthumous baptism on Santorum.” Mitt also saw his one-time nemesis, Newt Gingrich, finish a distant last place behind the likes of Ron Paul – a result so embarrassing that it might conceiveably threaten Newt’s self-image as a Churchillian Great Man.
But the bad news for Mitt is that the people he needs to unite the party still see him as a moderate in the mold of father George.According to the exit polls, three in 10 Illinois voters described themselves as “very conservative,” and they favored Santorum by 11 points. Four in 10 voters were evangelical Christians, and they favored Santorum by seven points.The higher up the income scale, the better Mitt did. The higher up the education scale, the better Mitt did. He won by a landslide among voters who make $100,000 or more. He cleaned up in the affluent suburbs around Chicago. He was particularly strong with voters who described themselves as “moderate or liberal.” (Illinois had an open primary; any registrant could vote.) Not that there’s anything wrong with winning these categories. It’s just that father George, a moderate leader in his day, would relate to the son’s nagging weaknesses.There’s another weakness: the fact that Mitt still doesn’t turn people on. Republicans are supposed to be stoked in 2012, right? And yet, just as in most other primary states, turnout in Illinois was tepid last night – barely exceeding the Illinois turnout in 2008, a desultory year, at the nadir of the Bush era, when Republicans were dispirited. Mitt last night got roughly the same amount of votes (428,434) that winner John McCain received four years ago (426,777). Which is no compliment to Mitt, because McCain had serious problems with the conservative base, problems that nagged him all the way to November. In fact, four in 10 voters last night told exit pollsters that they have “reservations” about their favorite candidates; within the frustrated cohort, 52 percent voted for Mitt. Which means that Santorum’s voters feel better about Santorum than Mitt’s voters feel about Mitt.Luckily for Mitt, however, Santorum continues to draw an insufficient number of voters north of the Mason-Dixon line and in traditional swing states. He got what he wanted in Illinois – with Newt basically AWOL, it was a one-on-one with Mitt – but he couldn’t deliver. If he’s going to change the paradigm of this race and demonstrate that he has autumn electability, he needs to start winning where thus far he has not – in the north, in the suburbs, among upscale voters, among non-conservatives, among non-evangelicals.Santorum also has to stop making unforced errors. Mitt may not be a great campaigner, but Santorum this past week has been wretched. He went to Puerto Rico and insulted their Spanish-speaking heritage. He told Illinois that he doesn’t care about the unemployment rate (this, in a state with a higher rate than the national average), then had to backtrack and explain what he thought he meant to say. He vowed to take on the $14-billion porn industry, an issue on virtually nobody’s radar screen. Yesterday he even politicized the president’s children, attacking Obama for letting Malia go on a school trip to Mexico (by tradition, candidates typically agree to keep the First Children out of the news). Now he’ll go to Louisiana, and by all accounts he’ll beat Mitt there in the caucuses on Saturday, but it’s the same conservative niche he has won all along.Anyway, we were talking here about Mitt and George. Mitt took a victory lap last night with yet another speech designed to suggest that he’s nothing like his moderate dad. In other words, he sought again to woo recalcitrant conservatives with the usual stuff they love best: demagoguery and lies about Obama. Like, for instance, about how Obama’s government has banned “Thomas Edison’s light bulb,” whereas, in the world of factual reality, it was President Bush who signed the Republican-sponsored bill phasing out the traditional, energy-inefficient incandescent bulb. And, naturally, he said nothing about his signature Massachusetts achievement, health care reform, which would have done his father proud.And so we can look forward to a spring season dominated by an enigmatic handsome guy who seems determined to flee his family roots and remake himself for public consumption, a mystery guy who seems market-tested from his slick hair down to his pricey shoes.But enough about Don Draper.Mad Men, the ad agency saga which takes place in the heyday of George Romney and moderate Republicanism, returns on Sunday.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1