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By Jay Cost

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The Romney Campaign, RIP

With Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican race yesterday, it is time to take stock of his candidacy.

It is fair to say that Romney was a polarizing candidate. Few candidates rouse such strongly divergent feelings among his fellow partisans. All campaign cycle, my email inbox has been full of people telling me Romney was the GOP's best hope and people telling me he would ruin the party.

We can state this a bit more formally. The following chart details net positive/negative feelings for the GOP candidates among the general electorate, according to the last few Pew polls. It also lists the percentage of people who could rate the candidate.

Favorability 1.jpg
As you can see, Romney's numbers fell as the campaign wore on. Also, note that they went down as the percentage of voters willing to rate him went up. Of course, they did not drop as precipitously as Giuliani's numbers - but unlike Giuliani, Romney was not plagued by personal scandal during the period these polls cover.

The same basic story holds when we look at Romney's numbers among Republican voters:

Favorability 2.jpg

These are probably the more critical numbers to review, even though they exclude self-identified independents who ultimately voted in an open Republican primary. Here we see that Romney lost all the ground he would lose on net favorability among Republicans before the first votes were cast - i.e. before momentum became a factor. This distinguishes him from Giuliani - whose numbers, as I noted last week and as can be seen above, fell before and after the contests began.

If Romney's favorability rating fell first, did this harm him at the ballot box later - when voters started to focus on the race, undecideds started to decide, and losing candidates started to drop out? Unfortunately, we cannot approach this question directly because we just do not have sufficient data for 2008. However, we do have data for years past that provides a clue. Consider John Geer's Nominating Presidents: An Assessment of Voters in Presidential Primaries. Geer's work examines the attitudes of Republican and Democratic voters in Los Angeles, CA and Erie, PA during the 1988 presidential nomination season. He asked voters why they supported a candidate, and these are the results he found:

Justification for Primary Candidate.jpg

Clearly, personality has a significant effect on vote choice. This should not come as a big surprise. Remember that these are primary voters choosing among candidates of the same party. It is surely difficult for them to see significant issue or ideological differences between candidates - and so it makes sense that personality would be a critical factor.

Of course, Pew's "favorability" and Geer's "personality" do not overlap completely - but they are obviously related. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that Romney's dropping favorability rating hurt his vote totals. It surely did not make all of the difference. Romney - like the rest of the field - was hurt by McCain's victory in New Hampshire, which will be remembered as the critical moment of the race. My point is more modest. Favorability did not make all the difference, but it did make some.

All of this might seem strange, given that Romney was viewed quite favorably by the Republican electorate. The critical point is that McCain was viewed much more favorably. That is the key - not Romney's absolute favorability, but his favorability relative to McCain's. Here I would also recall his national unfavorable rating, which includes strongly unfavorable reviews by independents, who were factors in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and some states on Super Tuesday.

How is it that the balance of the general electorate, and a sizable minority of Republican voters, came to dislike Romney? Unfortunately, there is only so much we can say on this front because Pew (and other pollsters for that matter) did not probe why voters did not view him favorably. Some, like Howard Fineman, would argue that it was due to his insincerity. Maybe. Maybe not. The polling data does not provide much of a clue. It is problematic to assume that the average Republican primary voter noticed what a journalist like Howard Fineman noticed, let alone whether he had the same reaction that Fineman had.

I do think we have enough evidence to make a case that Romney's negative (or "contrast") advertising had an effect on his favorability. If we dig a little deeper into the available data - some interesting trends emerge.

First and foremost, it is simply true that Romney's negative campaign against Huckabee and McCain was risky. I discussed the risks of negative campaigning in December. At the time, I noted that the research of Rutgers' Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper shows that going negative is a tricky task. In 2002, they looked at incumbent senators who attacked their opponents, and concluded, "A full accounting of the evidence suggests that, as often as not, attacking the opponent is a counter-productive campaign strategy to follow."

How might these negative attacks have hurt Romney? My sense is that it likely kept him from winning over those who supported McCain or Huckabee. That is, at its most basic level, it backfired; not only did it fail to convince Huckabee or McCain voters to back Romney, it alienated those voters from him. Pew found that Romney's net favorability rating among McCain voters was just +7 in January and +1 in February; among Huckabee voters it was -9 in January and -4 in February. The only candidate who had so much trouble with another candidate's voters is Giuliani, who was not liked by Huckabee voters. This is different - Rudy's divergence on social issues and his scandal-plagued autumn can explain most of that disregard.

I think the fact that Romney was viewed so poorly by McCain and Huckabee voters, but not Giuliani voters is a consequence of his attacks on McCain and Huckabee. I see no other plausible way to explain this pattern - especially in light of the fact that Romney worked for most of 2007 to woo the social conservatives who comprise Huckabee's base. Why else would the first two sets of voters dislike him, but the third like him?

These low ratings may have done electoral damage to Romney. First, consider Huckabee voters. As Huckabee's prospects declined, we would expect some of his supporters to switch to other candidates. Indeed, Huckabee has fallen about four points in the last month. Romney's negative numbers among Huckabee voters implies that if they were going to leave Huckabee, they would probably not go to Romney. Instead, they would probably go to McCain - who enjoys strong positive numbers among Huckabee voters. Minimally, this should dispel the notion that Huckabee's decision to stay in the race hurt Romney. If anything, it probably helped him.

Second, Romney's negativity might have kept him from picking up Giuliani voters during and after Florida. I would note that McCain had a +69 favorability rating among Giuliani supporters in the January Pew poll. If Rudy supporters were predisposed to like McCain - can we expect them to have reacted positively to Romney's attacks on the Arizona senator? Probably not. Of course, McCain and Giuliani share so much common ground that the former would probably have picked up most of the latter's supporters, anyway - but my sense is that Romney's attacks on McCain did not help him with Giuliani supporters who liked both McCain and Romney.

Ultimately, these considerations remain sketchy due to the limitations of the data. Perhaps at some point, an outfit like Annenberg or Pew will release some detailed analysis of how the supporters of various candidates responded to changes in the race. With the data available, the best I can do is argue that the theory of Romney's negative attacks backfiring is intuitively plausible and consistent with what we know. I would like to say more, but am limited by the numbers I have.

Regardless of whether the negative ads had an effect on his favorability rating - it remains true that it was quite low for a candidate hoping to win a nomination. We know from previous cycles that favorability and vote choice move together quite closely. So, we can conclude that Romney's campaign would have been well served by a more careful maintenance of his public image. It should have been more mindful of how voters felt about him, and it should have taken more decisive steps to win not just votes, but also affection, which makes a difference in a primary campaign.

-Jay Cost