Opinion: The center is back — and Obama needs to be there

The center is back.

After a year in which it looked like the Republican Party was headed to the extremes with Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Herman Cain and then Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney last night took 49 percent of the Republicans who voted in the New Hampshire open primary.

And the more centrist the Republican nominee, the more centrist the president needs to be in order to win in 2012. The huge ideological gap that would have made running against the Republicans an easy romp is disappearing as the exit polls show that even primary voters are choosing practicality over partisanship. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney won with those voters who thought he had a better chance to beat President Obama in November.

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Despite Ron Paul’s popularity with youth and Jon Huntsman’s popularity with Democrats, Romney managed to still win the registered Independents and those who identified as socially moderate and liberal. The attributes that have been a weakness to Romney during the primary season will likely be his strengths in the general election if he clinches the nomination in the next contests.

While former President George W. Bush turned out to govern more as a closet conservative, after campaigning as a centrist, Romney appears to be the reverse — a closet centrist trying to get through a primary dominated by conservative voters. And a centrist who does exceptionally well with voters concerned about the economy is, at the end of the day, the last kind of opponent the White House would want to come out of the seemingly crazy and at times out-of-control Republican nominating process.

That’s why the center is back, and this will be an election best fought now in the center, not by candidates and campaigns focusing primarily on the extremes to incite their bases.

Strategies that voters might see as class warfare would be disastrous against Romney, who did best with college-educated voters and those making more than $100,000 annually in household income. More than 26 percent of the voters in the last presidential election made more than $100,000, and they abandoned their usual lopsided Republican support to split evenly for Obama. That was a key factor in his decisive 2008 win. The exit polls suggest Romney could have strong appeal to these new professional-class voters.

An opponent such as Romney, who has been less partisan than some of the other potential nominees and who was at one time registered as an Independent, also underscores the importance this fall of winning independent voters, who are now 40 percent of the country, according to Gallup. The biggest party in America now is “no party,” and this new reality will play a major part in shaping the general election and the eventual winner. Huntsman would have been the ideal candidate for those voters, but Romney did still win registered Independent/undeclared voters in the exit poll.

On Election Day 2008, Obama won the lion’s share of independents, who comprised 29 percent of people who turned out to vote. Today, Obama’s approval numbers among independents are down by 21 points since he first took office and are his greatest area of vulnerability.

A more centrist Republican nominee would also mean that the space for a third-party candidate is closing and any third-party efforts are likely to serve as spoilers rather than true candidates with a potential to win. If Romney wins, donors fueling third-party movements will have to take a hard look at what they are funding and what practical impact a more conservative or more liberal alternative candidate would have on creating the opposite result in November.

While the economy has been improving in recent weeks, the emergence of one of the more centrist choices from the Republican pack puts the pressure on the president to woo centrist, independent voters as the central and overriding objective of his reelection campaign.

Penn is the worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a leading global public relations and public affairs agency, and CEO of Penn Schoen Berland, a strategic research firm. He also served as a pollster and strategist for former President Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.