It isn’t impossible that Mitt Romney will become the next president of the United States. But if I were a gambler, I would invite any bets from BCC readers who find his prospects at all positive.
Let’s start by reviewing Romney’s advantages. First, Romney has raised a great deal of money. As of June 30 (the most recent publicly available data; new reports are due on October 15), Romney had collected $44,432,350 in campaign funds for the 2008 presidential cycle. His campaign also had a great deal of cash on hand: $12,121,554. Money doesn’t unilaterally decide elections, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. (Keep track of candidates’ finances at opensecrets.org, if these numbers are of interest.)
Second, Romney has a solid lead among Iowa Republicans who are likely to participate in that state’s caucuses. In polls over the last month, his average lead for the Iowa caucuses has been about 16.4%. That’s big enough that some kind of major scandal or political misstep would probably be required for Romney to lose that state’s vote.
Romney also holds a lead right now in New Hampshire, although that lead is much narrower than in Iowa and seems to be currently shrinking. Averaging over polls during the last month, Romney leads Rudy Giuliani by about 4.7% in New Hampshire. Yet the trend over the last month has been negative for Romney, and New Hampshire is clearly becoming quite competitive.
The Iowa and New Hampshire leads that Romney holds are important because those are, by apparently insurmountable tradition, the first two states to caucus/vote in US presidential primary campaigns. In the past, a victory in one or both of these elections provided weeks of positive press coverage before the next primary elections took place, as well as access to additional fundraising opportunities as the party front-runner. This year, that will probably not be the case. Several states have moved their primaries so far forward that various elections will take place within a week or two of these early primaries. The media and fundraising advantages of early victories may therefore be substantially reduced compared to earlier years. Nonetheless, these remain good states to win.
Finally, Romney holds large leads in some other states. He is obviously likely to take Utah by a wide margin, and he currently has a double-digit lead in Nevada. Romney’s other strongest state in current polling data is Michigan, where he now leads by a margin of somewhere between 2% and 26% (there is an unaccountable margin of variance across polls in Michigan at present). Michigan is one of the states that has moved its primary far forward in the year; a law was passed there this summer setting its primary for January 15th. This date violates national Democratic and Republican party rules, with the consequence that 1/2 of Michigan’s delegates may be rejected at the Republican National Convention. This is clearly bad news for Romney, although the prospect of a third early victory is not.
While there is thus some good news for Mitt Romney, the bad news for his campaign right now is vast and probably overpowering. Let’s start once again with Romney’s campaign bank accounts. While Romney has raised a great deal of money, he has also spent most of it. His $12,121,554 in cash on hand is substantially counterbalanced by his campaign’s $8,945,028 in debts. In net balance, Romney is far behind Giuliani’s $18,326,220 and only about two million dollars ahead of John McCain and Ron Paul. By the end of June, Romney had spent more than any other candidate, Democrat or Republican.
What has he gotten in exchange for all that money? Obviously, leads in a handful of states, as mentioned above. However, Romney’s national polling is far more negative than it is for any of the states discussed so far. Nationwide, Romney currently polls about 9.9% among likely Republican primary voters. This puts Romney firmly in fourth place, about 6% behind third-place McCain and about 4.5% ahead of fifth-place Mike Huckabee. Romney enjoyed a brief surge of momentum in the national polls late this summer after winning the Iowa Republican straw poll. The most recent polls, from about September 10 to the present, show that the momentum is gone, and Romney’s support has slipped back to the level it has been at since about April.
Romney is also far behind in most of the states with significant numbers of electoral college votes. In California, Romney is in third place, and stands more than 15 percentage points behind the leader, Rudy Giuliani. In Texas, there seems to be a close race between Fred Thompson and Giuliani; Romney is 6-10% behind both of them, and about 2% ahead of Mike Huckabee. New York seems to heavily favor Giuliani. In Florida, Romney is in third place and about 17% behind Giuliani. The most recent polling data I can find for Illinois show Romney in fourth place and about 19% behind Giuliani. In Pennsylvania, Romney is 20% behind. In Ohio, Romney stands in fifth place, at about 13% back from the leader.
These polling numbers can clearly change. We’re still probably about four months out from the first elections. Yet the fact that Romney has spent as much money as he has this year and has not put himself in a better position than this is problematic.
More problematic still is that American voters just don’t like Mitt Romney. In a September 14-16 Gallup poll, 38% of respondents didn’t yet know Romney well enough to say whether they liked or disliked him — a high number for a candidate who has been actively running for president, and spending money, for as long as Romney has. More problematically, 35% of respondents said that they regard Romney unfavorably, while only 27% regard him favorably. Even among Republicans, Romney is not especially well-regarded. Only 39% of Republicans see Romney in a favorable light, compared with figures of 55% for Thompson, 65% for McCain, and 70% for Giuliani. An August 23-26 Gallup survey showed that voters’ feelings toward Romney are the most negative, overall, of any major or mid-level candidate, Democrat or Republican.
Can Romney overcome his relatively moderate overall financial situation, bad standing in national and many state polls, comparative unfamiliarity for many voters, and generally negative image to win the Republican presidential nomination? Democrats certainly hope so. Polling data over the last two months or so have consistently shown that, when asked to choose between Romney and Hillary Clinton (the Democrats’ likely 2008 nominee), Clinton wins by a wide margin — probably 10% or more in the popular vote.
The most likely scenario for Mitt Romney’s political future over the next year is as follows. He garners relatively little attention between now and January. In January, he wins contests in two or three states, producing a brief spike of media attention — but this attention is counterbalanced by the fact that other Republicans quickly start winning bigger states. Then Romney fades out and probably concedes defeat by mid-March. He is probably not an attractive vice presidential nominee for either Giuliani or Thompson, and so Romney’s life in national politics ends and he returns to relative obscurity. Other outcomes are of course possible. I just wouldn’t bet on them.