Door #2
November 12th, 2012

What I have always admired most about Ross Douthat as a writer is his innate charity. It’s possible that he’s never been more charitable than in this post, where he gently describes me as a “longtime Romney skeptic.” There’s a special place in heaven for writers who can manage such restraint.

Douthat’s post is an exercise in grappling with the question I posited last week in my Romney post mortem:

It’s December 2011 and I come back to you in a time machine from the future. I won’t tell you whether or not he wins, but I will tell you that if Mitt Romney is the nominee in 2012, he will get more than 2 million fewer votes than John McCain did in 2008. Then I leave it up to you: You can go with Romney and hope that’s good enough, or you can pick whoever’s behind Door #2–Perry, Santorum, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Huntsman, whoever. We can’t prove counterfactual history, but I suspect most people would have rolled the dice with Door #2 on the theory of how much worse could it get?

You should read his entire response, but the short version is, If Santorum or Gingrich had been the nominee it could have been very much worse in the popular vote, if not in the Electoral College.

As support, Douthat notes:

[Romney’s] 48 percent of the vote wasn’t even close to the floor for Republican candidates this cycle: Out of eighteen high-profile Senate races,the Washington Post noted last week, Romney outperformed the party’s nominee in eleven of them, and was outperformed in only four — all in deep blue states he was never going to win anyway. “In five races,” the Post pointed out, “the GOP candidate under-performed Romney by at least nine points” — a number that includes not only Akin and Richard Mourdock, but also Republican candidates in Montana and North Dakota, “who both lost in states that Romney carried by at least 13 points.”

And describing the GOP nightmare scenario, Douthat adds:

If you think Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” sneer and Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments cost Republicans this year, imagine how the press would have covered the “war on women” debate if Santorum — who actually did speak out against birth control in the primary campaign — had been the top of the Republican ticket. If you think it was too easy for Obama to define Romney with a blizzard of negative ads over the summer, imagine how much material a Gingrich candidacy would have given the White House’s admakers to work with. If you think that Romney suffered from being perceived as too much like George W. Bush Part II, imagine if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been a yet more tongue-tied and more right-wing Texan governor whose debate performances made Obama’s Denver sleepwalk look Ciceronian.

I don’t disagree with any of this.

My point has never been to argue that any particular Republican candidate absolutely would have performed better than Romney, but merely to suggest that Romney’s electoral history suggested that his ceiling was so low that nearly any other candidate would have had a chance to perform better than he could.

In the market people talk about a stock’s “beta,” that is, the range of possible valuations it could reasonably be seen to hold. My theory throughout the entire race was that Romney’s long history of standing before a wide range of electorates, and facing a wide variety of candidates, and nearly always being turned away with support in the mid-40s suggested that there was a fundamental problem with him qua candidate. The range of probable outcomes for a Romney candidacy was reasonably small.

But just as Douthat paints the doomsday picture of an alternate candidate being crucified for war on women stuff, it doesn’t take a ton of imagination to picture a race where one of the other candidates dogs Obama by constantly making the case as to how Obamacare hampers the economy and how it can be rolled back while tying Obamacare to a larger moral critique about the size of government and freedom in a way which is not classically conservative, but rather quite populist.

All of which is why I suspect given the original Door #2 proposition, most disinterested observers would have been willing to gamble the downside of losing a couple million extra votes, North Carolina’s EC votes, and maybe an additional Senate seat for the chance of having a candidate whose appeal might have equaled the vote total of John McCain in 2008.