After his third loss, in 1908, as the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan enjoyed telling the story of the drunk who three times tried to enter a private club. After being tossed out into the street a third time, the drunk said: “They can’t fool me. Those fellows don’t want me in there!”
Mitt Romney might understandably think that a third try would have a happy ending in a successful presidency. First, however, he must be a candidate. In 1948, when Democrats considered offering their presidential nomination to Dwight Eisenhower, the former and future Democratic speaker of the house, taciturn Sam Rayburn, said of Eisenhower: “Good man, but wrong business.” Two landslide elections and an admirable presidency proved that Rayburn was spectacularly mistaken, but he was right that not every good man is good at every business. Romney, less than nimble at the business of courting voters, lost a winnable race in 2012.
The nation was mired in a disappointing recovery, upward mobility had stalled, and the incumbent president’s signature achievement was unpopular and becoming more so. Barack Obama, far from being a formidable politician, was between the seismic repudiations of 2010 and 2014. Running against Romney, Obama became the first president to win a second term with smaller percentages of both the popular and electoral votes. He got 3.6 million fewer votes, and a lower percentage of the electoral vote. Yet Romney lost all but one (North Carolina) of the ten battleground states. He narrowly lost Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, but even if he had carried all three, Obama still would have won with 272 electoral votes.
If it seemed likely that the Republican field of candidates for 2016 would be unimpressive, this would provide a rationale for Romney redux. But markets work, and America’s electoral system is a reasonably well-functioning political market, with low barriers to entry for new products.
For all the flaws of a nominating process that begins with the Obnoxiously Entitled Four (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, with 4 percent of the nation’s population), those states do not require immediate substantial financial muscle, and they reward retail campaigning, so lesser-known and underfunded candidates can break through. Furthermore, campaign-finance laws designed to limit competition are, fortunately, porous enough to allow a few wealthy contributors to enable marginal candidates to be heard. These are among the reasons the Republicans’ 2016 field will have more plausible aspirants than any nomination contest since the party’s first presidential campaign in 1856.
America does not have one presidential election every four years, it has 51 — in the states and the District of Columbia. A Romney candidacy, drawing on his network of financial supporters and other activists, might make sense if the GOP were anemic in the states. But Republicans as of this week control 31 governorships, including those in seven of the ten most populous states (Florida, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio — all but California, Pennsylvania, and New York). Republicans control 68 of the 98 partisan state legislative chambers. (Nebraska’s unicameral legislature is chosen in nonpartisan elections.) In 23 states, with 251 electoral votes, Republicans control the governor’s office and the legislature. (Democrats have such control in only seven states.) Republicans have their most state legislative seats since the 1920s.
This mirrors Republican strength in Congress. The party holds more House seats than at any time since 1931. (Democrats, after winning the House in 20 consecutive elections 1954–1992, have lost it in nine of the last eleven.) Republicans are one Senate seat shy of equaling their highest total since the 1920s.
In the six presidential elections beginning in 1992, Democratic candidates have averaged 327 electoral votes, Republicans just 211. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six and have not won a decisive popular vote victory since 1988. And no candidate before Romney lost while winning 59 percent of the white vote, which was almost 90 percent of his support. George H. W. Bush won about that portion in 1988 but captured 426 electoral votes. Romney got just 206. The white portion of the vote has shrunk 15 points to 72 percent in the six presidential elections since 1992. With the fastest-growing ethnic group, Asian-Americans, Romney did even worse (21 percent) than he did with Hispanics (27 percent).
One more discouraging word about Romney 3.0: Massachusetts. Only two presidential candidates, James Polk in 1844 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916, have been elected while losing their home states.
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post