Few people seem to remember how truly weak the candidates were in the 2012 GOP primary. Here was Romney’s competition listed in order of strength:
- A former Senator who compared homosexuality to bestiality, tried to write intelligent design into public school curriculums, and lost reelection to his Senate seat in an 18 point landslide.
- A libertarian who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- A disgraced Congressman who had not held office since 1999.
- A Texas governor who could not remember which federal agencies he wanted to eliminate during a nationally televised debate.
- A fast-food executive who was accused of sexual assault.
- Michele Bachmann.
It was not exactly a who’s who of Republican luminaries. However, this round, Romney would face not only a larger field of candidates, but stronger versions of his 2012 challengers. With all due respect to Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz does a far more effective rendition of the arch-conservative, and Rand Paul’s libertarianism is far more palatable to the mainstream than his father’s. Even Mitt’s own position as the establishment favorite could easily collapse should Jeb Bush choose to enter the race. In other words, the 2016 field would be much, much tougher than the one Romney bested in 2012.
Romney did poorly with women and those of Hispanic heritage in 2012, and it is difficult to imagine him making amends with those two groups in 2016. Since the election, Mitt has softened his hardline stance on immigration reform, but he still opposes a path to permanent residency for undocumented immigrants. That position, combined with his “self-deportation” comments in 2012, would continue to haunt him with Latino American voters (including in swing states, like Florida, which have a large Hispanic population). Furthermore, Romney, like any Republican, would be associated with the failure of House Republicans to pass immigration reform, and with his party’s efforts to suppress Hispanic voting throughout the nation.
Whichever Republican wins the nomination will have to deal with his party’s perceived insensitivity towards women. Romney’s history of failure on women’s issues, including his “binders full of women” soliloquy, opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and desire to defund Planned Parenthood, provide ready-made fodder for attack ads.
Mitt’s established problems with the presidential electorate point to the disadvantage of being a past candidate: he has already made a full campaign’s worth of mistakes. Romney would have to answer to all his 2012 controversies, in addition to whichever new ones he generates in 2016. Furthermore, unlike past losers-turned-winners Richard Nixon and Andrew Jackson, Romney’s run came in an era when every one of his campaign positions was meticulously documented. If he changes one decimal point in his tax plan, the media will be ready to pounce on the switch. For a candidate who already has a history of shifting positions, that could prove a serious liability.
Romney’s net favorability ratings, never high to begin with, remain negative. A 2014 YouGov/Economist found that Romney was viewed unfavorably by 47 percent of the public and favorably by only 41 percent. Likewise, Public Policy Polling had him with a 38 percent favorable, 48 percent unfavorable rating, and Marist found Mitt viewed favorably by 43 percent and unfavorably by 51 percent. These sorts of numbers do not bode well for a candidate seeking an open seat, and are especially dangerous when you consider that Romney has little room to improve: Most Americans know and have formed an opinion about Romney because of his 2012 bid. Unlike some other potential Republican contenders, who have the opportunity to create a national image largely from scratch, Romney is stuck trying to change people’s existing opinions of him. His unfavorability would be even greater a liability if he faced popular Democrat Hillary Clinton, whose net favorability ratings have been consistently positive.
Furthermore, Romney’s current lead among Republican primary voters is likely less significant than it appears. The aforementioned ABC News/Washington Post poll put Romney ahead with 21% of the vote, but that still means that eight out of 10 GOP primary voters prefer a different candidate. Additionally, Romney achieved that 21% as the candidate with the greatest name recognition. As other Republicans begin to introduce themselves to a national audience, Romney’s advantage will start to erode.
All the potential problems with a Romney campaign aside, the strongest reason to believe that Mitt will not become president is his own lack of willingness. So caught up in his admission that “circumstances can change,” the media has largely ignored Romney’s later assurance that the chances he runs are about “one in a million.” They have also made little of the Romney family’s other comments on the matter, such as Ann Romney’s assertion that “we’re not doing that again,” and Mitt’s own “Oh no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no.”
Mitt has given a description of the one in a million situation in which he would run: if “all the guys that were running all came together and said, ‘Hey, we’ve decided we can’t do it, you must do it.’”
I do, however, think Romney was being slightly dishonest with that statement. After all, he knows that the odds of 15 politicians coming together to admit their collective impotence are far lower than one in a million.
Brett Parker, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.