There’s very little that conservatives and the mainstream media can agree on, but in April of this year, they were united on one front — that Mitt Romney was a weak nominee whose political flaws were so numerous that it was only a question of how President Obama would destroy him.
But with less than a week until the election, Romney has again united conservatives and the mainstream media — this time, out of mutual surprise over just how good a candidate he’s proven to be.
But as Romney enters the final stretch, it’s become clear that — win or lose — he’s run an exceptionally good campaign.
While national polls remains tight, he’s led in Gallup’s tracking poll every day since Oct. 11, and according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, he even has higher favorable ratings than the president — a dramatic reversal from earlier in the year.
A Republican Governors Association (RGA) employee notes just how far Romney has come, particularly when considering that a large portion of his party didn’t even like him when the general election effectively began in April.
“At the start of the race, like everyone, I was skeptical about Romney and expected him to be little more than a placeholder — a sacrificial lamb,” the RGA employee explains, “but I have developed a real fondness for Romney.”
Conservative writer Ben Domenech, editor of the political newsletter The Transom and a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, calls Romney a “better, stronger, faster candidate than conservatives and liberals alike expected to him be,” and suggests that the usual recriminations will fall flat if he loses.
“I suspect few conservatives will blame the candidate personally for failing to meet the challenge. He’s given it as good a shot as anyone,” he wrote.
So why has Romney proven to be such a strong candidate? Here’s a brief list of reasons:
Appeal to independents
A strong general-election candidate is one who can appeal to the demographic that usually decides general elections: independents. And here, Romney has proven extraordinarily successful.
According to Talking Points Memo’s average of all national polls, Romney is winning independents by 10 points, a dramatic reversal for his party from 2008, when its nominee, John McCain, lost this group by 8.
In fact, Romney is performing far better with independents than even George W. Bush in his successful 2004 reelection bid. His opponent, John Kerry, actually edged Bush by a point with the demographic.
More impressively, Romney has racked up the big lead with independents even as Obama has continually portrayed him as too far to the right — particularly after he picked Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.
Raising hoards of cash has always been a Romney strength and is at least partly responsible for his nomination, but the widespread assumption was that no one could keep up with the president. After all, Obama raised a record amount in 2008 and has the power of incumbency, which tends to be the driving force when donors make decisions with their money.
But Romney has done far better at neutralizing Obama’s advantage than most Republicans dreamed. The New York Times reported over the weekend that Obama and his allies have raised $1.06 billion over the past year, while Romney and his allies have raised $954 million. That’s functionally even, and the parity has blunted one of Obama’s biggest advantages.
Newt Gingrich nearly won the GOP nomination because his party lusted for an epic smack-down of the president. Well, if the GOP wanted epic, they got it in Romney’s first debate performance.
According to Gallup, viewers judged it the most lopsided debate win in modern history, and it permanently changed the shape of the race.
The Ryan pick
Another measure of a nominee is his ability to pick a vice-presidential running mate who can prove both energizing to conservatives and acceptable to independents.
Ryan has fit the bill on both levels, immediately generating grassroots enthusiasm and offering genuine appeal for independents. In fact, Ryan’s favorable ratings have consistently ranked strongest among the four candidates on the national tickets.
Conservative columnist Matt Lewis points to the Ryan selection as “a very important step toward Romney’s recovery.”
“It helped cement Romney’s ties with conservatives and freed up Mitt to be Mitt,” he wrote.
Indeed, once Ryan came on board, the Romney campaign squashed the possibility of conservative mutiny, energized the base and, as Lewis notes, freed Romney to settle into his ideological wheelhouse — GOP moderation.
Romney titled his memoir No Apology, and he’s conducted his presidential campaign accordingly. Throughout the campaign, the media and political class have dinged him for a number of strategic sins that would supposedly doom him.
He refused to criticize Rush Limbaugh after the talk show host insulted Sandra Fluke, he appeared at a fundraiser with the controversial Donald Trump and he hammered Obama soon after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.
Each of those decisions incurred Democratic scorn and Beltway consternation, but each showed something else: strength. Strength to resist the politically paranoid playbooks that usually govern campaigns. And that, more than anything, might be why he’s finally earned the affections of his former conservative antagonists.
-- This story was updated at 10:02 a.m. on Nov. 1.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com