In 2007, Mitt Romney blew his chance to be the Republican nominee by giving a particularly wooden speech to the audience whose support and energy he most needed: the “values voters.”
I won’t rehearse the case here, as I make it in the new book edited by Jonah Goldberg (which you should pre-order, as it has a lot of other good folks in it too). But I will say this: had Mitt Romney given a slightly modified version of the speech he gave at this past weekend’s Values Voter Summit (VVS) in Washington D.C., he would have won the Republican nomination.
More on that in a moment. First, let me preface this by saying that the 2012 horse race is only a few short months from starting, and while the political landscape will be totally different on November 12th than it was on November 11th, the VVS is a good indication of where social conservatives stand.
The big story, of course, is that Mike Pence won the straw poll, which simply indicates that showing up and giving a good speech is enough to sway a lot of voters. Mike Huckabee won a lot of hearts that way in 2007, and if Pence could keep up his momentum, he might be the 2012 version.
Pence’s win, though, overshadowed Palin’s loss. While Shane Vander Hart attributes her fifth-place showing to her not showing up, that wouldn’t explain why she nearly won the VP race. The more likely explanation is that social conservatives are more savvy than people think: we like Palin for her charisma and her story, but aren’t quite ready to trust her with the keys.
The real winner, though, might be Mitt Romney. Vander Hart points out that he won in 2007, and has been steadily declining since then. But that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. He won in 2007 only because the straw poll was available online and he mobilized his supporters to vote for him. Had he not, he would have lost to Huckabee in a landslide.
I can’t tell whether FRC held a straw poll in 2008, but he garnered about 12 percent of the vote in both 2009 and had 13% this year. That appears statistically insignificant. But given that last year’s poll had some 9 candidates and this year had 17, we would expect some dilution. Romney’s ability to keep the percentage steady, despite that fact, should be viewed as a small positive, but a positive nonetheless. If Pence and Palin stay out of the race next year, and Romney manages to impress, he may actually make inroads into the community.
Which is why I say that if he had given the speech he gave this weekend, he would have been the Republican nominee. On the whole, he stayed to his strengths, focusing on the economy and foreign policy before turning to American values of freedom and liberty. He mentioned the right to life in that last section, as we might expect. But he spoke with the sort of fervor and genuine optimism that resonates. I don’t know if he found a new speechwriter or has different political advisors (he needs them), but it was the sort of speech he desperately needed in 2008.
With one exception: Romney is an economic conservative, first and foremost. Most social conservatives don’t mind that. They heard plenty of economic language throughout the weekend.
But social conservatives are leery of Romney because we’re not exactly sure where he stands on social issues. We suspect that his conversion isn’t totally genuine, and with some good reason. What he needs to do is give a speech making the case that social conservatism is at the heart of economic conservatism, that those two legs of the stool are tied together by more than political expediency and the desire to win.
Do that, and social conservatives will listen–because no one is making that case.