After embracing stridently partisan positions during the primaries, campaigns traditionally etch-a-sketch to the center after securing the nomination. But while Romney adopted his fair share of conservative positions to squeeze past Santorum, he has yet to move back to the center: He hasn't discovered any new centrist positions, he hasn't attempted to co-opt any Democratic strengths, he hasn't established an independent-minded theme, and he hasn't found a Sister Souljah moment. He could use one.
Most presidential candidates adopt an image that distinguishes them from the most partisan wing of their party, whether it was Bush running as a "compassionate conservative," Clinton's "New Democrat," Obama's post-partisan appeals to change, or McCain's "maverick." And realistically, Romney needs it as much or more than any of those prior candidates. The Republican Party is decidedly unpopular — more unpopular than the parties were in any of those prior presidential elections (with the exception of McCain in 2008). Yet here's Romney, a candidate who entered presidential politics positioned to run as a moderate, running as a generic conservative Republican candidate with a splash of Bain Capital.
It's important to remember that Romney needs moderate, independent, and even traditionally Democratic-leaning voters to win this election. It's not 2004 anymore: The influx of non-white voters into the electorate over the last eight years, as well as their movement toward the Democratic Party, has raised the bar for what Romney needs among white voters. Romney will probably need to carry at least 60 percent of white voters to secure the presidency, more than any GOP candidate since Reagan. Now, deep dissatisfaction with Obama's performance and the state of the country has given Romney a real opportunity to pull that off, but that essentially requires Romney to sweep persuadable swing white voters — and we can infer that many have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates in national elections.
Take a look at the most recent Pew poll's breakdown among white voters, and forget about any qualms you have about the poll's party-ID, since it's not relevant to what we're looking at. According to the survey, Romney leads among white independents 50-39. Let's reframe that: Obama's at 47 or 48 percent with just 39 percent of white independents. To keep Obama beneath 49 percent nationally, Romney's going to need to keep Obama's share of white independents down in the low-40s, which probably starts to require persuading a number of independents who "lean Democratic."
In that context, it's hardly surprising that the attacks on Bain Capital, outsourcing, and tax evasion appear to resonate with undecided voters. These aren't the undecided voters of the year 2004; many of these undecided voters probably broke for Kerry and Gore, and it's easy to see how white working class Kerry and Gore supporters would be turned off by the emerging caricature of Romney as a corporate plutocrat willing to fire workers and close factories for personal gain. Romney's party-line platform probably doesn't offer these voters any reassurance.
Romney needs to redefine himself over the next month and do something to get independent voters to give him a second look. The vice presidential selection offers an opportunity, but most reports suggest Romney's inclined toward a lower-case "c" conservative approach. Assuming that's accurate, Romney will need to rebrand himself on his own, and while he might be able to buy a new brand with his growing financial advantage, that doesn't appear to be his campaign's preferred strategy. Even if it was, what brand could Romney adopt? "Turn around" guru? Not if the campaign is intent to avoid Bain Capital, which seems to be their preference.
That leaves Romney with the Sister Souljah moment, and there's something be said for adopting this tactic. Clinton was in a similar situation: He was running when his party didn't have the inside route to the White House and he needed to be different than the Mondale-Dukakis line to appeal to swing voters. Whether it's the marginal swing Latinos and college educated women who once voted for Republicans but now prefer Obama, or the undecided white working class voters who traditionally support Democratic candidates, Romney has options to break out of his narrow path to the White House — he just seems to have foreclosed all of them.
This is a unique moment. Here's a candidate completely dependent on winning moderate, independent, and perhaps even Democratic-leaning independent voters making no effort to reposition himself toward the center at a time when his party is unpopular. At the same time, a relentlessly negative campaign has begun to define him as the worst manifestation of the forces responsible for undermining the economic security of the middle class, and the Obama campaign is poised to highlight the most severely conservative elements of Romney's agenda.
Maybe it's too late for Romney to pull off a Sister Souljah moment — in which case, re-imagine the headline as "could have used" rather than "could use." Perhaps Romney's deficient conservative credentials truly prohibit any etch-a-sketch moment. But Romney's route to the presidency is quite narrow, and it essentially leaves him in a "1980 or bust" scenario: If he doesn't sweep the undecided voters, he's going to lose. Given the narrowness of his path, the composition of those undecided voters, and their emerging opinions of his candidacy, anything that encourages voters to give him a second look would serve him well.