Mitt Romney and the GOP Slough of Despond

Last week brought a couple of high-prestige but conflicting national polls about the current status of the two parties heading towards the presidential general election, with Politico/GWU/Battleground confirming the conventional wisdom that Barack Obama’s maintaining or even expanding a solid margin over the GOP field but Gallup/USAToday showing Rick Santorum actually leading the incumbent.

Today brings a NBC/WSJ survey that strenghtens the case the USAT/Gallup numbers are an outlier, showing Obama leading Romney by 6 points and Santorum by 14. But what’s most interesting about this poll is its measurement of perceptions about the GOP nomination contest, as described by NBC’s Mark Murray:

Four in 10 of all adults say the GOP nominating process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, versus just slightly more than one in 10 with a more favorable opinion.

Additionally, when asked to describe the GOP nominating battle in a word or phrase, nearly 70 percent of respondents – including six in 10 independents and even more than half of Republicans – answered with a negative comment.

Some examples of these negative comments from Republicans: “Unenthusiastic,” “discouraged,” “lesser of two evils,” “painful,” “disappointed,” “poor choices,” “concerned,” “underwhelmed,” “uninspiring” and “depressed.”

You will note that “too extreme” is not one of the words that pops up (the published data as of the moment does not indicate what words were offered by non-Republicans).

It is not clear that the broadly shared elite GOP opinion that Romney has been too negative in the nomination contest is shared by the rank-and-file. But there is little doubt a negative general election campaign by Romney would be strongly supported by “the base.” Indeed, given Romney’s less-than-robust ratings from Republicans as a “reliable conservative,” it’s probably the preferred general election strategy in terms of keeping “the base” energized. It would also avoid too high an association of Romney among non-Republicans with unpopular conservative policy positions.

All of these indicators and others point to an exceptionally negative–or if you wish, comparative–Obama/Romney campaign, assuming Mitt does get the nomination. The incumbent needs to keep the focus on unpopular conservative policy positions and aspects of Romney’s personality and background that are not especially inspiring of admiration or trust. Mitt needs to keep Republican voters focused strictly on the holy task of driving Obama from office, and convincing swing voters to make their choice a referendum on their general feelings about the previous four years.

So anyone who looks at polls like NBC/WSJ and figures either side will look at voters discouragement and take the high road this autumn isn’t really thinking it through. In particular, Team Romney will almost certainly decide the best and perhaps only cure for the GOP’s Slough of Despond is to make its destructive primary tactics a mild precursor of what it will throw at Obama once the nomination is secured.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.