Yet the recently concluded Iowa caucus, which Mr Romney – who is on his second attempt at the nomination, having lost out to John McCain in 2008 – won by a paltry eight votes (or less than 0.01% of the total), is the latest indication of his party supporters’ ambivalence towards him. Mr Romney had spent heavily in the state compared with second-placed former Pennsylvanian senator Rick Santorum, who had a shoestring budget but benefited from conservative swing voters coalescing around him in a late surge.
Mr Romney’s quandary is that he is well-known but not particularly well-liked. For one thing, he seems to strike many Republican voters as a rather dull candidate, compared with some of the crowd-pullers in the Republican field. But that is partly a corollary of Mr Romney’s strong sense of discipline, which gives him an advantage in other ways – his campaign has been tightly run and largely on-message, and he has been unencumbered by the kinds of personal shenanigans that have plagued other candidates. Herman Cain, a one-time frontrunner, dropped out after numerous allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced; Newt Gingrich, currently Mr Romney’s closest rival, can be electrifying on the stump but has been dogged by his sometimes tactless comments and public disquiet over a tumultuous personal life.
The more serious concern that some Republican voters have is that Mr Romney does not share their values. To anti-tax and small-government tea party activists, Mr Romney’s centrist stint as governor of a liberal north-eastern state was riddled with heterodoxy. The prime exhibit was the healthcare plan that he implemented while governor, a forerunner of the federal scheme signed into law by Mr Obama in 2010 deemed to be too close to “socialism” for the Republican base. For evangelical and religiously conservative Republicans, Mr Romney’s Mormon faith presents a problem reminiscent of previous suspicions about Catholic candidates that only started abating half a century ago.
Furthermore, there have also been doubts about the strength of Mr Romney’s convictions. Since entering the race he has distanced himself from his healthcare reforms as well as hardened his stance on abortion. Unsurprisingly his opponents have tried to paint him as a flip-flopper on issues important to their base.
But the problem does not entirely lie with Mr Romney: it is partly a function of the polarised political atmosphere of recent decades and an ideology-driven Republican party that has veered increasingly to the right. Mr Romney’s late father, George Romney, had governed as a centrist in largely Democratic Michigan. A moderate and pragmatist, the late Mr Romney resisted the conservative movement behind 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, becoming a contender for the nomination himself four years later.
The Goldwater movement was the precursor to modern religion-infused conservatism in America, but it is its singular refusal to compromise that has informed the unbending ideology of the current tea party movement. Tea party activists regularly attack Republicans deemed to be not doctrinaire enough, further undermining any attempt at pragmatism in the party. Mr Romney’s misfortune is to have a similar political outlook to his late father but to live in different times.
The doubts over Mr Romney are a big reason why the lead in the Republican field has changed hands frequently in the last six months: Michele Bachmann, a Congresswoman from Minnesota, excited tea party activists early on but dropped out after a poor result in Iowa; Rick Perry, with a well-regarded track record as governor of conservative Texas, galvanised the base when he entered in August 2011, but took a beating after a series of gaffes; Mr Gingrich, a combustible former speaker of Congress who engineered a Republican revival in the House in the 1990s, surged in the wake of the likes of Mr Perry and Mr Cain falling aside, only to be undermined by questions over his character from his opponents.
In comparison Mr Romney’s campaign has been far more steady. He has consistently been near the top of the field, and with his slim victory in Iowa one poll by the Economist magazine shows his nationwide lead over Mr Gingrich to be 26% to 22%. The main question now is who will emerge as the main alternative to Mr Romney as the race moves on to New Hampshire, which votes next week.
Mr Gingrich remains a strong contender, as he actually leads in more states than Mr Romney (among those 26 states that have polling data), particularly among the southern states with the exception of Florida, though he increasingly seems prone to self-destruction. Ron Paul, a libertarian Congressman from Texas running as a Republican, is enthusiastically supported by younger voters who have helped him build a solid grassroots network. Mr Paul, whose staunch views about abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning America to pre 20th century isolationism are not for mainstream consumption, could still play the role of the spoiler as he seems better prepared to go the distance compared with 2008 when he dropped out early.
It is Mr Santorum that has emerged as the flavour of the week with his performance in Iowa, but he seems unlikely to replicate this in New Hampshire, where he has not put in as much time and where Mr Romney has enjoyed a near 20-point lead for months. His hope is that the evangelical vote eventually falls to him, with other contenders for the same vote such as Ms Bachmann dropping out. Moderates, though, cringe at the prospect of a Catholic literalist like Mr Santorum clinching the nomination, as this would likely push swing voters to the Democrats.
At this point, the race is still Mr Romney’s to lose. But even if he wins the nomination in August, it is difficult to see large tracts of the Republican base – particularly its evangelical and tea-party constituents – being fired up, which could weaken the supporter turnout in the election. This might be redressed by the swing votes that Mr Romney is expected to draw, but Mr Romney’s biggest trump card over Mr Obama – his supposed superior understanding of business – could have faded by that time if the American economy continues to improve at its current rate.