Why Mitt Romney is not the inevitable nominee

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.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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7 Responses to Why Mitt Romney is not the inevitable nominee

  1. Daniel B says:

    The problem with your analysis, robust though it is, lies in that it misses one small factor: Republicans. Democrats are often willing to try a relative unknown for the Presidency, picking someone who catches their imagination. (See also Bill Clinton) On the other hand, Republicans tend to want someone who has been vetted, has run the course, and who they can “feel” comfortable with as their representative. They don’t call them “conservatives” for nothing.

    Hence, we get Ronald Reagan (on his second campaign), George HW Bush (on his second campaign), Bob Dole (his third campaign, not counting his run as VP), and, latest, John McCain (how many times?). This isn’t because GOPers vote for the candidate “whose turn” it is, but because it takes them time to get comfortable with the candidate.

    It’s why, despite his reputation as a flip-flopper, Romney, now in his second race for the White House, is able to maintain more consistent support. He’s branded himself, and people know who he is–for better or for worse–and they’re becoming comfortable with the “businessman cum economy saver” image that he’s cultivating.

    On the other hand, we’ve seen a litany of flame-outs. And the principle works both ways–Gingrich, the current “not Romney” candidate has his own extensive brand to deal with, and the longer he’s in the spotlight the less attractive he looks.

    So who’s next? Huntsman? Why not? (If only the Tea Party could get used to him…but that’s another analysis, isn’t it?)

    • Adam Brown says:

      That may all be true, at least in 1980, 1988, 1996, and 2008. 2000 is a big exception, though, and 1984, 1992, and 2004 don’t really apply. I’ve heard this argument before, but it always seems overstated.

      Even if it is true, though, it implies that Romney should have much higher support than he does now.

      • Daniel B says:

        Well, I didn’t say I disagreed with you about inevitability–I just said that I thought you were missing a factor–Democrats and Republicans use different reasoning in their decision making. Romney still has a case to make, and there’s still a lot that can happen (though I find it difficult to compare straight laced #rebelRomney to Howard Dean, whose campaign died in a rebel shout…).

  2. Jeff Dixon says:

    Thanks for sharing this analysis.

    Both Dean and Clinton seem to’ve had relatively high unfavorables and a field that included at least one candidate who was a suitable replacement. It seems as though the media machine has chewed up and spit out each of Romney’s challengers before anyone has cast a ballot.

    Flavor-of-the-month Gingrich, who has the experience and expertise Cain, Bachmann and Perry lack, has a closet bursting with skeletons and is currently going through the same media vetting which may well render short his day in the sun.

    Leading in to Iowa, then, who is the electable anti-Romney? The R base continues searching, and may find itself with fewer suitable alternatives than D’s felt they had in ’04 and ’08.

    Also, a D in Iowa and a D in New Hampshire may not be quite as different as R’s in those two states, so a win — even a surprise win — in Iowa may carry little momentum in to New Hampshire and beyond.

    • Adam Brown says:

      Favorables/unfavorables are important, but they don’t help us here. Romney’s and Gingrich’s are very similar, not only to each other, but also to Dean and Clinton. From a poll fielded November 11-13, they’re within the margin of error:

      Romney: 39 favorable, 35 unfavorable

      Gingrich: 36 favorable, 39 unfavorable

      Dean in December 2003: 20 favorable, 25 unfavorable, lots of undecided. That 20-25 breakdown isn’t that far off from Gingrich and Romney today, except for having so many undecided.

      Hillary Clinton December 2007: 51 favorable 48 unfavorable.

      Romney, Gingrich, Dean, and Clinton differ in how many “undecided” they had, but they’ve all had a similar breakdown, with roughly as many favorable as unfavorable.

  3. Jeff Dixon says:

    Interesting. What are the trends in %undecided and in Romney’s and Gingrich’s unfavorables? Also, given what we’ve observed with the rise and fall of Romney alternatives, do we consider them vetted and rejected, and if so, who do you reckon is positioned to compete with Romney?

    • Adam Brown says:

      I can’t say whether Gingrich will be it. Time will tell. More broadly, I’m not even forecasting that Romney will lose. My broader point was only that it’s faulty to call any candidate “inevitable.” Weird things happen. If the anti-Romney voters fail to coordinate on an alternative, then Romney is likely to win. But if they do manage to coordinate, whether that means Gingrich or somebody else, then he’s in trouble.

      Another way to say it: If he wins, I’m not sure it’s because a majority of the GOP loves him. If that were the case, then he’s George Bush in 2000, and we can just call him “inevitable” right now. Instead, if he wins, I think it’s because the majority of the GOP fails to figure out who to get behind in order to beat him. That’s a far cry from inevitability.

      As for % undecided, I pulled those favorability numbers off this site, and you can find more stuff (including trends) there: http://pollingreport.com/

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