Ross Douthat seems in danger of jumping on the Romney meat-wagon. He writes that despite Rick Perry’s position, Romney should not panic because “Romney doesn’t have to worry about any of the rival candidates making a play for his core supporters.”
We’re going to hear this argument a lot in the coming months from Romney partisans as they try to argue that something they would like to happen is, in fact, likely to happen. It’s worth taking this pundit fallacy apart now because it gets to the nub of why I’ve been insisting for four years that Romney is a non-starter as a political commodity—it’s precisely because he has no core supporters. Which is why he is not very good at winning elections.
Let’s revisit Romney’s campaigns:
1994: MA Senate Republican primary: Romney 82%, John Lakian 18%
1994: MA Senate general election: Ted Kennedy 58%, Romney 41%
2002: MA Gubernatorial Republican primary: Romney runs unopposed
2002: MA Gubernatorial general election: Romney 50%, Shannon O’Brien 45%
2006: MA Gubernatorial primary: trailing in polls for the general election to Deval Patrick—a guy who’d never run for anything before—Romney declines to seek reelection. I’ll count this as a loss; you might be more charitable.
2007: Presidential primaries: I won’t go state-by-state, but here’s the breakdown: Romney won only three states where the vote was a straight-up primary. Each of these wins was in a place where he had enormous legacy advantages: Michigan, where his father had been governor; Massachusetts, where he had been governor; and Utah, which is overwhelmingly Mormon. (He also won 8 caucus states, though the organizing rules there are much less indicative of electoral strength.)
On other side of the ledger, Romney lost primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, California, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, and Maryland. (He also lost a bunch of caucus states, but we won’t count those against him since we’re discounting his caucus wins.)
Which means that in the 2008 cycle he went 3-16.
Combine that with the rest of his runs and you get a 17-year career record of 5-18. I don’t think you could find any other figure in politics who has run this far below the Mendoza line and still managed to get taken seriously as a presidential candidate. In fact, the only reason Romney gets taken seriously is his money. Strip away the $500M treasure room and the willingness to blow large chunks of his kids’ inheritance, and he’s Ron Paul without the ideological moorings and grassroots support.
But I’d argue that his electoral prospects are even worse than they look from his won-loss record. Here’s why:
(1) Romney made his political career out of his “close” 17-point loss to Ted Kennedy. But keep in mind that to only lose by 17, he spent $7M of his own money. But more importantly, this was the 1994 midterm election—so he got blown out during the biggest Republican wave in half a century.
(2) The high-point of his electoral career was the 2002 MA governor’s race, where he took 49.77%. Even in the biggest win of his life, he couldn’t capture more than 50% of the vote.
(3) It’s funny that Romney’s line of attack on Perry seems to be that Perry is a “career politician” because he’s been in elective office since 1984. Well, Mitt Romney would have been a career politician too, if only voters would have let him. He’s been running since 1994. His real gripe about Perry is actually, “Hey, that guy wins all the time! No fair!”
(4) Each of Romney’s previous electoral “successes” came with him occupying a different political space:
Romney 1.0 (MA senate) was Different Kind of RepublicanTM.
Romney 2.0 (MA governor) was a competent technocrat, ready to fix Massachusetts.
Romney 3.0 (the 2008 presidential cycle) was a rock-ribbed conservative you couldn’t get to the right of.
Romney 4.0 is a sane, moderate, establishment Republican. (Romney 4.1 seems to have installed an Emotion Engine mod which allows him to show anger. Who knows what updates the engineers will push out if Romney falls into third place.)
Because of all these opposing political personas, I suspect that the Venn diagram of Romney voters over the years would probably show four distinct, small circles. And very little overlap.
Douthat says that “The greatest danger to Romney’s candidacy — the thing that could destroy him long before the voting even started — has always been that a more appealing establishment candidate would enter the race.” But that’s not right at all. The greatest danger to Romney’s candidacy is that he has no constituency because he’s not very good at campaigning and, as the electoral results of the last 17 years have shown, voters don’t like him very much. The danger to the Romney candidacy is the candidate.
At the end of the day, the only committed Romney voters out there are his co-religionists (see the 2007 Utah primary where he took 89% of the vote) and people who have written books about him.
On this last score, I’d remind readers of what Hugh Hewitt wrote on September 13, 2007:
“The third quarter fundraising is coming to an end, and so has Fred Thompson’s honeymoon, leaving one of three people as George Bush’s successor–Senator Clinton, Mayor Giuliani, or Governor Romney.”
Just something to keep in mind.
Post script: I don’t hate Romney, by the way. I bet he’s a great guy. Would love to have him as a neighbor or to share a decaf iced tea with him. For all I know, he might even make a very good president. My point is that he’s a terrible campaigner and that, over and over again, voters have been unwilling to pull the lever for him. And that’s what ultimately matters for politicians.