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The Real Reason Mitt Romney Has the Lead

The Real Reason Mitt Romney Has the Lead

By Sean Trende - January 7, 2012


Mitt Romney has risen to the top of the Republican heap, and now leads by four points in the RCP Average. As little as a year ago, most observers considered this an impossible feat. Romney's poor showing in 2008, combined with the increased salience of his decision to sign a universal health care bill in Massachusetts that included an individual mandate, seemingly made him radioactive to the Republican Party.

Yet here we are today, with Romney potentially poised to wrap up the GOP nomination by the end of February. What made this possible? Commentators such as Ed Kilgore on the left and Erick Erickson on the right have focused on accidents of history. Both columns are worth reading in full, and they are correct that Romney’s likely nomination is due more to accident than to design. But they miss the two biggest accidents involved.

1) Romney has always been in second place. One of the interesting effects of the series of “anti-Romneys” who have come and gone during the campaign is that they have rendered Romney himself something of a FRINO -- a front-runner in name only. Consider the RCP Averages. Since Rick Perry entered the race in August, Romney has been in first place only briefly, during the first two weeks in October.

The fact that Romney’s opponents have been vying for the same group of very conservative voters, combined with the fact that Romney has seldom been in first place, has kept the limelight off of him. While the former Massachusetts governor has taken a few hits in the debates, most of the attention has been focused on the front-runner of the moment by those hoping to make it out of Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina as the conservative alternative to Romney. Oddly enough, had Romney possessed even marginally broader appeal within the GOP, he’d probably be less likely to be the nominee.

2) Romney is benefiting from the 2002-2008 elections. The GOP has always preferred to nominate executives. Excluding sitting presidents running for re-election, nine of the 13 nominees since the 1932 election have either served as vice president, a governor, or been a five-star general. So we might reasonably expect the GOP’s ranks to be drawn from recent gubernatorial winners. Let’s look the GOP gubernatorial candidates who won in 2002 or 2003. We can sort them into a few categories:

1) Running for President/Ran in ’08 (Mike Huckabee, Arkansas; Mitt Romney, Massachusetts; Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota; Rick Perry, Texas);

2) Lost in 2006 (Frank Murkowski, Alaska; Bob Ehrlich, Maryland);

3) Term ended in jail and/or major scandal (John Rowland, Connecticut; Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky; Bob Taft, Ohio; Mark Sanford, South Carolina);

4) Too darned liberal (George Pataki, New York; Don Carcieri, Rhode Island; Jim Douglas, Vermont);

5) Others: (Bob Riley, Alabama; Bill Owens, Colorado; Jeb Bush, Florida; Sonny Perdue, Georgia; Linda Lingle, Hawaii; Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho; Haley Barbour, Mississippi; Mike Johanns, Nebraska; Kenny Guinn, Nevada; Mike Rounds, South Dakota).

In the “others” category, Riley estranged himself from his party’s base by trying to raise taxes on the rich, Owens left office amid a divorce scandal (though he considered running in ’08), while Perdue, Kempthorne, Johanns, Guinn, Lingle and Rounds governed smaller states and/or just never really seemed like presidential material. The only ones who hadn’t already declared for president and are plausibly presidential were Jeb Bush (who has the wrong last name) and Haley Barbour (who declined to run). Overall, you have to say that this group of governors is quite the opposite of the West Point class of ’15: In terms of promotion potential, it was something of a disaster.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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