I’m sympathetic to the notion that the news media’s coverage of the Etch A Sketch comments made by one of Mr. Romney’s top aides has been excessive. At the same time, the comments made by the adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, will serve to remind voters of a major issue in the campaign: that Mr. Romney has substantially altered his positions on a wide range of issues since he ran for governor in Massachusetts in 2002.
Almost all presidential candidates shift their positions on some issues — toward the party base in the primaries, and then toward the center of the electorate if they receive the nomination. But there is not a lot of precedent for a presidential candidate whose shifts were so recent and broad-based.
In 2002, as well as during his Senate campaign in 1994, Mr. Romney very explicitly ran as a moderate, especially on social issues. His campaign’s Web site in 2002 told voters that he would support “the strict enforcement of gun laws” and recognition of domestic partnership for same-sex couples, that he would “protect the current pro-choice status quo in Massachusetts,” and that he endorsed an increase in the minimum wage.
Mr. Romney’s campaign was also much different in tone. At times, it previewed the “post-partisan” theme of Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
“Our opponents are tired. Their record is weak. They will retreat to the politics of fear. We will embrace the politics of hope,” Mr. Romney, said upon accepting the endorsement of delegates at the Republican state convention. “My political philosophy is not drawn with narrow partisan lines,” he said during the same speech.
Although Mr. Romney has long been consistent in his advocacy of lower taxes, there were also hints of populism in his message from time to time.
“This is not about how can we can help businesses be more successful or how we can get the tax rate down for the wealthiest 1 percent,” he told The Boston Herald in a 2002 interview. “That is not what motivates me in this race. It’s how can we get the Massachusetts families to be part of the American dream, those that have been left behind.”
“Romney’s message seems more tailored to a Democrat like former President Clinton,” The Herald concluded.
Mr. Romney began to shift some of his positions late in his gubernatorial tenure and then declined to run for a second term. As late as 2005, however, the nonpartisan Web site OnTheIssues.org rated Mr. Romney as being exactly in the middle of the electorate on both social and economic issues based on the public statements he had made. Using the same methodology, that Web site now classifies Mr. Romney as being quite conservative based on his more recent statements.
And those 2005 ratings were before the passage of Mr. Romney’s health care law for Massachusetts in 2006, which contained an individual mandate and other substantial commonalities to the one that Mr. Obama and Democrats passed in 2010 and which Mr. Romney has now pledged to repeal.
This is not an exhaustive list of Mr. Romney’s policy shifts; the point is simply that his rival campaigns have a lot of ammunition to work with. And yet, they have rarely been able to make much of it.
Tim Pawlenty famously flubbed a line about Mr. Romney’s health care bill during an early debate. Newt Gingrich and his “super PAC” attacked Mr. Romney on his tenure at Bain Capital, but was much more reluctant to go after Mr. Romney’s inconsistencies — possibly because Mr. Gingrich has some apostasies of his own.
Ron Paul, who has perhaps the most consistent voting record of any presidential candidate in memory, has rarely gone after Mr. Romney directly. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. was more willing to, but he was a minor player during most of the campaign, and he lacked the budget to give the slick commercials he had produced on Mr. Romney’s shifts a wide airing on television.
Two rivals, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, were potentially in a stronger position to attack Mr. Romney on these grounds. But Mr. Romney’s campaign successfully executed the same bold strategy against them, shifting the conversation to highlight their own departures from conservatism. The sequence during the Feb. 22 debate in Arizona, in which Mr. Santorum was initially making an effective attack against Mr. Romney’s health care bill but Mr. Romney turned the conversation around to Mr. Santorum’s endorsement of Arlen Specter, was the clinching moment for that strategy and may have helped Mr. Romney to win Michigan when it voted a week later.
Indeed, Mr. Romney’s issue shifts have become less and less at the top of voters’ minds over the course of the campaign; Google searches on the term “Romney flip flop” have been in steady decline since January.
One common conceit is to portray Mr. Romney as having been the beneficiary of good luck in skirting these attacks. However, I think there is something more to consider.
Voters are not as well-informed about these issues as people inside the Beltway. That does not necessarily imply that they make poor decisions, but the campaigns and the news media can overestimate how much they know.
A recent Pew poll, for instance, found that only about 30 percent of Republicans (and an even smaller fraction of Democrats) knew that Mr. Santorum is Catholic. A larger fraction, two-thirds, knew that Mr. Romney was Mormon — but that still left a third of Republicans who were unsure of Mr. Romney’s religion despite widespread discussion about it.
Since turnout in primaries and caucuses is relatively low, the voters there may be relatively more informed. Still, they are unlikely to know every detail of a candidate’s record.
An early December poll of likely voters in the Iowa Republican caucus, for instance, found that 74 percent of voters said it would raise concerns if a candidate had supported an individual mandate for health care, as Mr. Romney did. But 14 percent of those concerned voters nevertheless
planned to vote for Mr. Romney, not much worse than the 16 percent he polled over all in the survey. Some of those voters may have weighed their concern about the individual mandate against other issues and chosen to support Mr. Romney despite it, but others might not have known much about it — and could have voted differently if they had.
This gives an edge to campaigns that are skilled at driving their own message rather than relying on the news media to do it, since the news media’s fascination with different elements of the campaign inevitably waxes and wanes and may not penetrate that far with ordinary voters.
And Mr. Romney’s campaign has some advantages in this department. First, Mr. Romney has run for president before, something no other candidate but Mr. Paul had done. Although Mr. Romney’s opponents have more ammunition against him this year than they did in 2008 because of the increased salience of his health care bill, his experience has allowed him to become more effective at deflecting these attacks.
Second, Mr. Romney’s campaign has a skilled and professional communications team, Mr. Fehrnstrom’s recent remarks notwithstanding, while the other campaigns have often relied on lone advisers with limited experience.
Third, Mr. Romney (and his super PAC) have raised the money to run attacks against their opponents on the television airwaves. Mr. Romney’s opponents often have not, and when they have, they have tended to attack Mr. Romney on issues other than his flip-flops.
Fourth, Mr. Romney has the support of the large plurality of influential Republicans, meaning that he has plenty of formal and informal surrogates willing to vouch for him and echo his attacks while downplaying the ones made by his rivals.
None of this has much to do with luck; these are tangible and important advantages that Mr. Romney’s operation has had throughout the nomination campaign.
Whether the Etch A Sketch comments will have much effect in the remainder of the primary season will depend on whether Mr. Romney’s opponents are more effective at driving a message than they have been in the past.
The gaffe is also well-timed for Mr. Romney, because it comes during a relatively slow part of the nomination calendar and the effects of such incidents often fade quickly. Louisiana votes on Saturday but there are only 20 delegates at stake in the primary there. There will not be another primary until April 3, when Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia vote.
That is not to predict that the Etch A Sketch comments will have no lasting effect at all. But the only campaign that might have the skills and resources necessarily to fully exploit them is Barack Obama’s, which Mr. Romney will probably be facing in November.