Demographically, his image among independent voters, the most critical swing group, is more negative now than it was when the primary battle began. He could be hurt among women. He is in trouble with Latinos, a growing part of the electorate that is tilting even more Democratic than it was four years ago. He is not as strong as he needs to be among working-class white voters, among whom President Obama has been consistently weak.
Geographically, the numbers from several key states have been discouraging for the former Massachusetts governor. Pre-primary polls in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan showed him running behind Obama by low double digits. Ohio is a must-win for the Republican nominee in the fall, and Virginia is a state the GOP is determined to take back from the president. Republicans once thought Michigan would be a possible battleground, but at this point it isn’t.
Karl Rove, the GOP strategist who guided George W. Bush to his presidential victories, said it is far too early to know what effect the nomination fight will have on Romney’s fall prospects, should he become the nominee. “It’s way premature to say it’s dispositive” about the outcome of the general election, he said.
No one on either side is predicting anything but a close contest in November, given the state of the economy and the nation’s partisan divisions. Obama may look stronger in head-to-head matchups with his Republican rivals today than he did a few months ago, but vulnerabilities remain.
Republicans say the president’s weaknesses will appear more significant once their candidates stop pounding one another and focus the full force of the GOP machinery — including their super PACs — on the president. Romney’s allies think he ultimately will be strengthened by the nomination fight, saying his opponents have helped to make him a tougher campaigner and a better debater.
Romney has been squeezed between the demands of winning the nod of a party that is more conservative than it was four years ago and the realities of a general election in which winning the middle is crucial.
The more successful he has been at fending off his GOP rivals, and the longer he has had to fight to prove his conservative bona fides, the more conflicted he is about the need to woo the fall electorate.
“He’s sitting there thinking, ‘This will all dissipate when these other guys get off the stage and stop attacking me,’ ” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said. “History suggests that’s not likely to happen. Once you reach a plateau, the negatives are hard to shake, absent some dramatic event.”