‘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.