‘The only reason I’m supporting [Mitt] Romney is because he can win the election,” an Iowan named Tim McCleary told the Washington Post in late December. It seems to be a common sentiment among Romney supporters. But Romney’s critics are putting forth a vigorous set of counterarguments that can’t be easily dismissed.
Some say that he is actually a weak candidate: someone to whom voters have never really warmed. Or they say that if nominated he will not be able to motivate conservatives to show up to vote for him. Some conservatives say that electability is overrated: Merely electing someone who calls himself a Republican wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have said in debates that anyone can beat President Obama in November, in which case there is no reason to judge the primary candidates’ electability. The electability skeptics often cap their argument by pointing to John McCain: Didn’t many of the people who call Romney the strongest of the candidates say the same thing about him four years ago? Look how that turned out.
The McCain example should indeed serve as a reminder of the fallibility and provisionality of judgments about electability. Observers who touted his potential strength in a general election — this observer included — did not predict that a financial crisis would hit the country a few weeks before that election, and thus raise the importance of issues with which the senator had no familiarity. But McCain nonetheless ran ahead of the rest of the Republican ticket in most places; and even in retrospect, it is not obvious that any of his primary-campaign rivals would have done better than he did. Mike Huckabee never showed any ability to reach beyond his evangelical base. Many of Fred Thompson’s own supporters came to view his campaign as lethargic. And so on.
Electability isn’t everything, of course: Otherwise Republicans could just nominate Obama and call it a day. But electability matters more in races where the main primary candidates have very similar programs, where the parties’ programs differ dramatically, and where there is a high probability that the general election will be tight. In the current race all three conditions obtain. The fact that no judgment about electability can be conclusively proven to be right does not excuse us from having to make one.
Jonathan Last, a writer for The Weekly Standard, has made the case that Romney
has the least-impressive electoral history of any Republican frontrunner in a very long time.Most of the politicians who chase the White House are proven vote-getters with very few electoral blemishes on their record. John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis — what unites all of these men is that before getting to the presidential level, they had demonstrated a talent for getting people to vote for them.
Last figures that Romney has run in 22 elections and won only five of them. He lost to Ted Kennedy by 17 points in 1994, a great Republican year. Even his greatest political achievement, winning election as governor of Massachusetts in 2002, is unimpressive on Last’s telling. Republicans won the three previous gubernatorial elections with larger percentages of the vote. And Romney ended the party’s winning streak: Republicans lost the 2006 election as he left office.
Nothing in Last’s indictment is inaccurate, but he has chosen the most hostile possible interpretation of the facts. It is true, for example, that Kennedy beat Romney, as he beat everyone the Republicans ever put up against him in Massachusetts. It is also true that Romney held Kennedy to the lowest vote percentage he ever got after his first election (in, yes, a good Republican year). Last’s win/loss record treats each primary defeat in 2008, dubiously, as an independent event. Consider them collectively and his win/loss record is 3–2. (Wins: 1994 Senate primary, 2002 gubernatorial primary, 2002 general election; losses: 1994 Senate general election, 2008 presidential primaries.)
It is also possible to read the gubernatorial record Last discusses more favorably. Almost anywhere, a gubernatorial candidate trying to continue a winning streak for his party is going to confront time-for-a-change sentiment, and that sentiment is likely to be stronger the longer that streak has lasted and the smaller the minority the winning party represents. Under Romney’s Republican predecessors, Massachusetts had turned even more liberal than it already was. In 1992, the Republican presidential candidate’s share of the vote in the commonwealth was 8.5 points lower than his share of the national vote. In 1996, it was 12.6 points lower; in 2000, 15.4 points lower. Republicans were bound to end their streak eventually, and keeping it going as long as they did was a real achievement.
Keep in mind the liberalism of Massachusetts, and Last’s list of former party nominees does not look so clearly stronger than Romney. McCain, Kerry, Dole, and Dukakis had all run in states that favored their parties.
None of which makes Romney a political dynamo. Last’s critique has real force. It is not hard to identify Romney’s political weaknesses. If he is the nominee, President Obama will relentlessly attack his work at Bain Capital as vulture capitalism. In 2008, his appeal in most states was limited to the affluent, and political reporters have made great sport of his sometimes awkward interactions with voters on the campaign trail. A significant portion of the electorate will hold his Mormon religion against him. His campaign flailed when Newt Gingrich began to climb in the polls. Romney himself raised the “issue” of Gingrich’s debts to Tiffany, which only made Romney look foolish.
But the important question about electability isn’t whether Romney has political vulnerabilities or even how well he stacks up against past party nominees. It’s how he compares with the other available candidates. Compared with them, he starts to look much more impressive.
First consider their political résumés. Several of Romney’s rivals — Speaker Gingrich and Representatives Bachmann and Paul — have not been elected statewide to any office. (Gingrich hasn’t been elected anywhere during this millennium.) One, Gov. Rick Perry, has a perfect record of winning in statewide elections in Texas. But his gubernatorial wins came after the state had become safely Republican. Gov. Jon Huntsman was elected in deep-red Utah.
Romney has executive experience, which separates him from Representatives Bachmann and Paul, Speaker Gingrich, and Senator Santorum. Voters seem to value such experience. Since 1928, the presidency has gone only once to someone without strong executive credentials — who was not, that is, a former governor, former high military commander, or sitting president — over someone who had such qualifications. (In 1988, when the elder Bush beat Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis.) Romney is the only one of the current Republican candidates who — like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush — both has executive experience and has won an election in a competitive jurisdiction. (Note that this would not be true if Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota were still in the race, or Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida had entered it.)
Most of the primary candidates are running on the same agenda, so the differences among their positions are fairly small. What differences exist tend to work in favor of Romney’s electability and against the others. Perry and Romney both have fairly sensible ideas about how to reform Social Security, for example. But Perry, unlike Romney, has expressed a degree of hostility to the popular program that will be easy for Democrats to exploit in the fall. The view of Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum that abortion should be banned even in the rare cases where pregnancies arise from rape or incest, while defensible (and in my view correct), would also be a serious political liability.
The candidates would probably have different strategies in the fall campaign. George W. Bush adopted “compassionate conservatism” in large part to ensure that the public did not form an impression of him as simply a conservative Christian from Texas, with all the negative associations that would accompany that impression. Disagreeing with Bush’s solution is one thing. Perry seems not to acknowledge the political problem at all: The premise of his campaign has been that the public wants a pure, uncompromising conservatism. Many conservatives believe, or want to believe, this premise, but the evidence for it is weak and it is at the very least an awfully risky premise for a nominee to adopt.
Then there’s the question of how the candidates would come across personally if nominated. This is admittedly subjective territory. The danger with Romney is that he will come across as (in order of increasing political worrisomeness) boring, phony, or uncaring. But he seems just as likely to appear intelligent, calm, and responsible. Gingrich runs a high risk of projecting an image of grandiosity, instability, and callousness, Santorum of arrogance and self-righteousness. Many people have gotten the impression that Perry is dumb. That may be unfair, as it was in the cases of Reagan and the second Bush. But it is an impression that Perry keeps reinforcing, both in debates and in remarks to reporters.
Some weaknesses are easier to address than others. Romney at least seems to understand that he needs to connect with middle-income voters, which is why he keeps emphasizing the middle class when he talks about taxes. Gingrich cannot, however, rearrange his marital history. Nor can any of these candidates change their basic personalities. Note Gingrich’s recent comparison of his failure to get on the Virginia primary ballot to Pearl Harbor, which no other candidate would have made. Gingrich also has a steeper climb in public opinion: Roughly half the country already has an unfavorable view of him, while closer to a third of the country feels that way about Romney.
Romney cannot do much to change the minds of anti-Mormon voters. But two things might work in his favor. The longer he spends in the spotlight, the lower his religion may go down the list of associations people have with him: He could become “moderate,” “the Republican nominee,” and “a rich businessman” before he is “the Mormon” in people’s minds. And the closer voters get to the election, the more they may focus on the important issues before the country, which do not include his theology.
Romney isn’t one of the great political talents of American history. (Neither is Obama, by the way, but that’s another article.) But he looks like a strong candidate. He might not win in November: I would rate him as a slight underdog, myself. But he still looks like the best bet to beat Obama.