Just how weak is Mitt Romney?
By Pat Murphy
According to most pundits, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is progressively enfeebled, a view that crosses the political spectrum. But as conventional wisdom has an iffy track record in these matters, let’s step back and ask whether Romney is really as weak as people think he is.
On the surface, it’s easy to understand the proposition. Romney is clearly not setting the Republican world on fire and he’s making heavy weather of what’s considered to be an uninspiring field. Whether it’s the stiffness, the alleged gaffes, or the difficulty in connecting with ordinary people, he’s not a natural politician.
Is Romney like Reagan?
If we look to history for guidance, 1980 is a useful benchmark. It was the last time a Republican presidential challenger unseated a sitting Democrat. And the candidate who did it, Ronald Reagan, turned out to be something of a political game changer. Here’s what a comparison tells us.
Up to and including March 6, there have been 23 primaries and caucuses in the Republican 2012 race. Romney has won 14, just over 60 per cent. While Reagan’s 1980 success rate was materially higher, he also lost some high profile contests. Indeed, on May 20 – less than two months before the Republican convention opened – he was badly beaten in Michigan.
Another perceived indicator of Romney’s weakness is the recurring meme of the Republican establishment casting around for a new entry to save the party from disaster. However, that’s not a first. After Reagan swept New Hampshire in February 1980, there was a deluge of stories about the need to bring former president Gerald Ford into the race. Ford himself encouraged the speculation, telling the New York Times of the “growing sentiment that Governor Reagan cannot win the election.”
As for the polls, hypothetical match-ups currently have Romney running an average of four to five points behind U.S. President Barack Obama. But that’s substantially better than Reagan did against Jimmy Carter at a similar point in 1980. Indeed, a Harris poll had him 18 points behind!
1992 is also worth a look, being the other modern situation in which an elected president was defeated. What does it tell us? Did Bill Clinton sweep everything before him en route to the White House?
Not quite. He actually lost the first two Democratic nomination contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and didn’t assume the frontrunner mantle until Super Tuesday. Further, it was June 2 before he’d amassed sufficient delegates to clinch things.
Even then, it wasn’t plain sailing. In fact, an early June Gallup poll put him in third place for the general election. Independent candidate Ross Perot was first with 39 per cent, incumbent president George Bush was second with 31 per cent, and Clinton lagged behind with 25 per cent. If there was ever a profile of apparent weakness, that was it!
Historically then, Romney’s perceived vulnerability is perhaps not that unique. And it’s also appropriate to look at the man he’d be up against in November. After all, it’ll ultimately come down to a choice between two flesh and blood candidates.
Beginning with his substantial financial advantage, Barack Obama had pretty much everything going for him in 2008. The sitting Republican administration had become deeply unpopular after eight years in office, the rival McCain campaign was incoherent, and the financial crisis that erupted less than two months before election day was blamed on the Republicans. With these cards, Obama could hardly lose.
But while he did win decisively, his seven-point margin was less than that of Reagan in 1980 or Eisenhower in 1952. All things considered, it wasn’t the performance of a political giant. Put another way, he’s beatable.
For Romney, it’s doable
And Romney does have several things in his favour. He’s currently within reasonable striking distance in the polls, the wary conservative base will almost certainly bury their misgivings and come out for him in November, and he has shown an ability to appeal to the upscale independent voters with whom both Obama and Clinton did so well. For him, it’s doable.
Mind you, if Romney’s not as weak as the conventional wisdom says he is, it’s still wise to refrain from getting carried away. American presidents do tend to be re-elected. So if you fancy a bet, Obama’s the prudent way to go. Just don’t give too generous odds.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics. Column courtesy Troy Media www.troymedia.com