Romney is no more “inevitable” than Howard Dean in 2004 or Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Mitt Romney has polled consistently with around 20% support for months. Meanwhile, we’ve seen a variety of opponents rise rapidly than fall. First it was the Donald back in April, then Bachmann in July, then Perry in August and September, then Cain in October, and now Gingrich. We’ve seen several outlets describe Romney’s nomination as increasingly inevitable, including Politico, ABC News, and the Washington Post.
There’s just one problem: Howard Dean was just as “inevitable” in late 2003, before losing the nomination to John Kerry. Hillary Clinton was even more “inevitable” in late 2007, before losing the nomination to Barack Obama. And looking at the data, it looks like Romney is no more “inevitable” than Howard Dean in 2004 or Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Howard Dean’s fall from inevitability in 2004
For weeks prior to the first primaries and caucuses of 2008, Howard Dean held a consistent lead in the polls. Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, Clark, and others were stuck at 10% support or less, but Dean was polling consistently in the 20s, then the 30s, and occasionally in the 40s. Clearly, he was the inevitable nominee.
Then, John Kerry was the surprise winner of the Iowa caucus. The day before the caucus, his polling support was at 9%. A week after the caucus, he was flirting with 50%. Within a few more weeks, Kerry had the nomination clinched.
Why? Apparently Dean had maxed out his support at 30% or so. The remaining Democratic voters weren’t sure whether to get behind Kerry, or Edwards, or Clark, or Gephardt, but they agreed that they did not want Howard Dean. Kerry’s Iowa victory was a clear signal to the anti-Dean voters: If you want to beat Howard Dean, you need to abandon Edwards, Clark, and Gephardt and get behind Kerry. (You can read a similar explanation of Dean’s fall here, by prominent pollster Mark Blumenthal.)
Hillary Clinton’s fall from inevitability in 2008.
Throughout 2007, Hillary Clinton polled even better than Howard Dean had polled in 2003. If ever there was an inevitable nominee, it was her. The chart below (source) shows her polling support from January 2007 through early 2008. Each dot is a separate poll; ignore those. The lines average across the polls to show each candidate’s overall trend. Clinton (purple line) held steady with 40-50% support all the way through 2007 and into early January.
So Hillary Clinton was inevitable–until Obama (orange line) had a surprise win in Iowa and immediately climbed in the polls. Perhaps we should have seen this coming. After all, in October 2007, John Edwards had explained his decision to stay in the race by comparing Hillary Clinton’s inevitability to Howard Dean’s. It turns out he was right.
What happened? The pro-Clinton faction was between 40 and 50% of the Democratic voters. The anti-Clinton faction was larger, but divided between voters supporting Obama, Edwards, Biden, Dodd, and others. With Obama’s Iowa victory, the anti-Clinton voters abandoned those other candidates in favor of Obama. Before January was over, Edwards, Biden, Dodd, and others withdrew their candidacies and endorsed Obama.
Mitt Romney’s problem in 2012
When Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton were declared inevitable, they were polling better than Mitt Romney is now. Howard Dean was in the 30-40 percent range. Hillary Clinton was in the 40-50 percent range. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has polled in the high teens and low 20s for most of 2011. The chart below (source) shows polling data spanning an entire year, back to November 2010. Romney (purple line) has been pretty stable in this range, rarely going above 20-23%.
Meanwhile, other candidates have struggled to break through. Bachmann (black line) surged briefly in July, followed by Perry (dark blue) in August and September, then Cain (red) in October, and recently Gingrich (green) in November.
It sure looks like Romney might be in the same situation that Dean and Clinton were in. He may have maxed out his support in the 20-30% range. The anti-Romney vote is struggling to figure out which candidate to get behind. The closest they came to consensus was Rick Perry, but his rise was reversed by subpar debate performances and other problems.
Punchline: Can Romney win?
Sure. Romney can win. If anti-Romney voters fail to coordinate around a candidate, Romney can win. But it is a mistake to call Romney’s nomination inevitable. In fact, his nomination might even be doubtful, if it is in fact true that he has maxed out his approval the way Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton did.
If some non-Romney candidate does surprisingly well in Iowa or New Hampshire, that candidate might very quickly become the anti-Romney rallying point, just as Kerry and Obama became anti-Dean and anti-Clinton rallying points. Now we just need to wait and see whether that happens.