Everyone says that Mitt Romney is Mr. Electable. In reality, he's done far from a good job in making the case.
First, he's run far to the right in the primaries. In February, he told the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that his record as Massachusetts' governor was "severely conservative." Earlier, he outflanked Texas Gov. Rick Perry to the right on immigration policy. And he's been pulled to the right on a host of social and cultural issues in the debates and on the stump.
This defies conventional wisdom, which holds that presidential elections are won in the center, among independents and moderates. Such "swing" voters tend to vote more on pocketbook issues than ideology.
Romney's resume as a turnaround expert, which could help him fix a flagging economy, would be a more natural, unifying message with this group. After all, it helped him win the governorship in one of the bluest states.
Second, rather than explaining why he should be president, Romney's real argument is that his rivals are unelectable. "Give anything weird a wide berth," the late Hunter S. Thompson wrote in late 1971, "including people."
Romney, like many before him, has channeled this advice. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are on the fringe of the party, he has argued, and Newt Gingrich is risky. Romney's campaign and its aligned Super PAC have spent millions of dollars reinforcing this.
The problem with such an argument is that, to appear the logical foil, Romney must run a safe, risk-averse campaign. So he hasn't rolled out a detailed plan of what he'd do as president. Nor has he given the public a peek inside his shell.
Too many comparisons have been made between Romney and the doomed Republican nominations of Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. They, too, were seen as establishment figures who failed to excite the electorate.
However, the 2004 Democratic nomination is a more apropos example. That year, Democrats played it safe by choosing John Kerry. Newcomer John Edwards held the promise of energizing the party with younger voters and a new geographic region. Primary voters opted for the better-known Kerry, believing that his foreign policy expertise and deep Senate experience were essential.
Though the intellect and competence were there, Kerry's low-risk approach, betting on an anti-Bush referendum, wasn't quite enough to ignite voters to put him over the top in Virginia, Colorado, and Ohio.
Romney, like Kerry, seems remote to many voters. His cautious approach -- making it a referendum on the other guy and hoping for the best -- will be too risky when trying to defeat an incumbent president.
Team Romney is replete with paid staff, pollsters, money, endorsements, and even a delegate-counting department. It's incredible that such a sophisticated organization has whiffed on selling Romney's electability. Namely, he has the right mix of private sector and executive experience; he's a Washington outsider; and he's free from taint in his personal life (not to mention his good looks).
With Super Tuesday behind him, it's time to recalibrate his campaign theme. Romney's current trajectory may carry him to the nomination.
But unless he finds a way to inspire voters and connect with a broader audience, ostensible electability won't get him to the White House.
Adam Silbert, an attorney, served as a deputy field organizer for the 2008 Obama campaign.