Mitt Romney’s nod to the conservative birther conspiracy in a speech Friday in Michigan is a move that is almost impossible to explain by any political logic.
In talking about his birth in Michigan, Romney noted, “no one has ever asked to see my birth certificate.” It was very out of character for Romney, who has tried to avoided the false tenet among some conservatives that the president was not born in the United States. Romney has campaigned alongside perhaps the most well-known birther in the country, Donald Trump, but has repeatedly insisted “he believes the president was born here in the United States,” as a Romney aide noted today.
In the GOP primaries, when Romney formally accepted Trump’s endorsement, that made sense: Trump has some appeal in the base of the Republican Party, where Romney was struggling to get support. Romney’s misleading attacks on welfare reform and Paul Ryan’s recent invocation of Obama’s 2008 controversial comments on “clinging to guns and religion” could help the GOP appeal to white, working-class voters.
But there is limited evidence Romney needs much more conservative support from people who might have backed Trump and wrongly think the president was not born in the United States. A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that among voters who call themselves “conservative” 84 percent are backing Romney, higher than the 78 percent John McCain earned four years ago. Among conservative Republicans, the group where Trump may have his most appeal, 94 percent already back Romney.
And if any conservative Republicans aren’t backing Romney already, it is unclear why, as he has addressed nearly all of their concerns. In his candidacy, Romney has pledged to repeal Obama’s health care law and drastically cut taxes, strongly opposed any changes to immigration law that would appeal to Hispanics, cast Obama as a big government liberal on every issue from healthcare to welfare and tapped as his running mate Paul Ryan, one of the favorites of conservative activists. One nod to the birther movement is unlikely to generate a lot of new support among conservatives, particularly as the coverage of the remark could hurt Romney among swing voters who he needs to win.
If the remark was simply a mistake by Romney (and his aides told CNN the birth certificate comment was not in his “prepared remarks”), it seems a strange one. Most of the controversies around Romney’s campaign are issues he has carefully examined and determined are worth the risk: refusing to renounce the health care law he passed in Massachusetts, accepting Trump’s support, not releasing most his tax returns. All have negative implications, but also positive ones.
The birth certificate controversy, in contrast, seems to have almost no political benefit and lots of potential costs.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr