Originally posted on The Huffington Post.**
With Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump out of the race, Mitt Romney moves one step closer to securing the front-runner position among likely and potential GOP presidential candidates. Much of Romney’s appeal may come from the fact that he’s a moderate businessman who just feels electable — if he can land the nomination that is.
The common sense these days is that Romney’s record on health care could dramatically affect his chances come Primary Election Days early next year. But, following his speech in Ann Arbor Michigan last week, Romney’s attempt to re-shape his position on health care has come under fire from both the right and the left.
Presumably out of fear of a general election scenario with Romney, Democrats have worked as hard as the Governor’s opponents to point out to conservatives the striking similarities between “Romneycare” and “Obamacare” — most notably, the individual mandate. Further, it’s clear the media most watched/read by conservatives aren’t ready to give him a pass either. After his address, pundits on the right slammed Romney and Greg Sargent of the Washington Post (Post Opinions) suggested that Romney is “on his way to losing one of the most important contests of 2012: The Fox News Primary.”
Similarly, in New Hampshire the Union Leader didn’t give Mitt Romney any easy outs either, criticizing him for not clearly differentiating himself enough from Obama. However, the sentiment of the media doesn’t reflect what voters are thinking in the Granite State.
According to our latest poll done here at the Suffolk University Political Research Center (SUPRC), it’s true the health care plan passed by Washington two years ago isn’t popular. Some 86 percent of likely Republican Primary voters felt that universal health care should be repealed (52 percent) or modified (34 percent).
Yet, a majority of respondents (53 percent) said that Romney’s involvement in helping to pass Massachusetts’ universal health care law would not affect their decision to vote for him. Among those who identified as Undeclared/ Independent (roughly 40 percent of all likely GOP Primary voters), some 20 percent said Romney’s involvement in passing Massachusetts’ health care bill would actually make them more likely to vote for him, and similarly 50 percent said it made no difference.
Given the influence of New Hampshire’s Presidential Primary and that independents and new voters who register at the polls may choose a Republican ballot, it’s beneficial to Mitt Romney that these voters are not holding his Massachusetts health care legacy against him.
It would be easy to dismiss Romney’s numbers in New Hampshire given its proximity to Massachusetts — especially considering that the state’s main population center resides within Boston’s media market. However, given that our Florida numbers match New Hampshire’s (vote/lean Romney — NH GOP: 38 percent, FL GOP 33 percent) it’s clear that Romney is finding some strong baseline support from Republican voters in key areas.
Further, SUPRC’s New Hampshire study found the two most important qualities for a presidential candidate among potential voters were honesty (29 percent) and integrity (10 percent). And, while pundits have slammed Romney for his failure to clarify this or denounce that, he certainly hit these notes on the head, saying “A lot of pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake… There’s only one problem with that: It wouldn’t be honest.”
While health care could be an important (or at least easy) wedge issue for Romney’s opponents, harping too much on it could be detrimental. The issue of health care does not appear to be a cutting one among New Hampshire GOP Primary voters. Those surveyed were predominantly focused on the issues of reducing the national debt (28 percent), and jobs and the economy (37 percent)–compared to with only 5 percent who picked health care as the most important issue.
Given the importance of both New Hampshire and Florida in winning the nomination, while Romney might not impress the pundits, it’s clear that he is making serious headway towards appealing to the constituencies that matter the most — the voters.
**Co-authored with David Paleologos, Director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center