Republicans must resolve Mitt issues

Years ago, a polling strategy that was fashionable involved asking undecided voters whether there was a single reason that caused them to hesitate when voting for one candidate or the other. The intent of the concept was to uncover latent negatives that could be addressed in campaign messaging, to persuade the undecided to move one way or another. It seemed a good idea when I first came upon the practice, but I have generally dropped its usage in my own polls because, too often, the answer isn’t necessarily anything you could do anything about. For example, more often than not, voters just say they don’t know or care enough either way to tell me whether or why they might hesitate in voting for either candidate. Huge majorities of undecided voters in most races are simply know-nothings, so you don’t get a lot of insight probing their empty heads to find a way forward.

But this is not always true. Sometimes there are very palpable reasons for hesitation, and it can be worth asking about them. This is particularly true in primary races, where the electorate of likely voters is more attentive and sophisticated. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in regard to Mitt Romney. As a second-time contestant, most voters who are likely to vote in a presidential primary will know who Romney is and what he’s all about. Or will they? I am not polling the race and don’t have a firm grasp on how things are stacking up, but it seems Romney might be having some problems closing the sale.

I recognize that there is a segment of the electorate — let’s call them the fiscal conservatives — who seem to swing from alternative to alternative, always choosing Romney’s next-strongest challenger: first Rick Perry, then Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich. These critics probably say they hesitate to vote for the former Massachusetts governor because of his alleged flip-flops and his suspected centrism. I would speculate that his Massachusetts healthcare initiative is an oft-mentioned reason to hesitate voting for him. And I am relatively sure that some evangelical Christian voters still hesitate backing the Mormon Romney because of his religious preference. But fiscal and religious reluctance alone don’t seem to explain why there are so many persistently undecided voters, or voters clinging to obviously defeated contestants. It might simply be that these voters are not yet tuned in enough to have decided much about Romney. But if it’s something more, it’s important to get all the cards on the table, or our Republican Party risks nominating a candidate who is less likely than Romney to succeed in challenging President Obama.

Because I am convinced that Romney is the only certain winner in the current field, I worry about the hesitation of many to support him. Those who are holding back, if they have a reason for hesitation, need to engage and resolve their concerns. Party leaders in local areas where the voting starts earliest need to urge on this process, coaxing more voters to think more deeply about the race, the prospects for victory by each candidate and the issues that stand in the way of making a decision. Voters who are holding back need to crystallize their own concerns now and set those before Romney for a response. Resolving concerns is a two-way process. Yes, Romney must keep reassuring Republicans of his opposition to going ahead with ObamaCare, but if there are wider concerns of voters, they must hit these head-on in conversations with Romney. In some ways, I think Romney and undecided voters need to meet one another in a series of Nixon-style “man in the middle” forums, with ambivalent voters voicing their deepest concerns and allowing Mitt to respond. Dialogue needs to start now, for all our sakes.

David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.