There are three basic theories to explain why Mitt Romney hasn’t been able to build support above the 30 percent level, despite being the heavily favored frontrunner for most of the past six years: (1) Republicans distrust Romney because of his history of flip-flopping. (2) Republicans view Romney as insufficiently conservative. (3) Republicans aren’t comfortable with the idea of a Mormon as president.
Each of these explanations has some validity. There is indeed a segment of voters uncomfortable with Romney’s Mormonism. Yet in polls, most of the people who view it negatively are Democrats. Among Republicans, the number who view Romney’s religion as a hindrance typically registers around 15 percent. That’s a hurdle for Romney in the primaries, but a relatively low one. And it doesn’t explain his inability to rise much above 30 percent in the polls.
As for Romney’s conservatism, it’s true that if you were to tally up a scorecard, Romney is probably the most moderate candidate in the field. But this cycle happens to feature a group of candidates who are, pound for pound, the most conservative set in recent Republican history. And Romney isn’t exactly running as Nelson Rockefeller. In fact, during the only intensely ideological fight of the campaign so far—the long joust over immigration—Romney has led the charge from the right. The only real “conservative” problem Romney has is a matter of policy and not ideology: It’s his Massachusetts health care reform. He says it worked great for his state, that he’s proud of it, and that his first act as president will be to make sure no one else in America ever has to experience anything like it.
Which brings us to the flip-flops. Romney has spent the 20 years of his political career whipsawing from one view to another. But so have lots of politicians. The only thing particularly distinctive about Romney’s positioning is that normally politicians evolve from one stance to the next as they march upward through government. They win an election with one set of positions, and then have to modify their beliefs in order to play on a larger stage.
Romney’s changes in position have followed defeats, rather than victories. He’s progressed from liberal New Republican (1994) to moderate technocrat (2002) to rock-ribbed movement conservative (2006) to sane, free-market Mr. Fix-It (2011). (The 2006 transformation came when it was clear from polling that he could not possibly win reelection as governor of Massachusetts.) But other than this stylistic oddity, there’s no real reason Romney’s flip-flops should cripple him more than, say, Newt Gingrich’s many changes of position over the years have hampered his ability to attract support.
If none of the conventional wisdom is fully satisfying as an explanation for why Romney is now stuck in the mid-20s, then, perhaps a more elemental explanation will do: Voters just don’t like him very much. And they never have.
Romney has the least-impressive electoral history of any Republican frontrunner in a very long time. Most of the politicians who chase the White House are proven vote-getters with very few electoral blemishes on their record. John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Bill Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis—what unites all of these men is that before getting to the presidential level, they had demonstrated a talent for getting people to vote for them. (Barack Obama is the exception who proves the rule.)
Over the years, Mitt Romney has faced voters in 22 contests. He won 5 of those races and lost 17 of them. (This total includes a win in the 1994 Massachusetts Republican Senate primary as well as results from the 19 primaries he participated in during 2008. It excludes caucuses because their rules make them complicated enough to be considered distinct from straight-up lever-pulling.)
Romney’s electoral record becomes even more underwhelming when you examine the particulars. He first attracted national notice in 1994 when he mounted what was considered a strong challenge to incumbent senator Ted Kennedy. But when it came time to vote, Romney lost by 17 points in what turned out to be the best year for Republicans in more than half a century. In 2002, Romney won the gubernatorial race in Massachusetts. This victory—the triumph of a Republican in deep-blue Massachusetts—is now the cornerstone of his 2012 “electability” rationale.
Yet Romney’s victory was, as a matter of raw political power, less impressive than it seems. Romney was actually the fourth in a string of Republican governors who ran the state from 1990 until 2006. Of that group, Romney received the lowest percentage of the vote, failing to break the 50-percent mark in his 2002 victory. He took home a smaller share of the vote even than Paul Cellucci, the political nonentity who won the 1998 election. After three years in office, Romney’s approval rating was so low that he was forced to abandon hope of reelection. Romney’s term concluded with a Democrat winning the governor’s office for the first time in 20 years.
More evidence of voters’ coolness toward Romney came in a recent Public Policy study, which took snapshots from 13 states both early and late in 2011. In all 13 states, he became less popular as the year progressed. Even more telling were Romney’s negatives—which increased in tandem with his name recognition. As Romney began campaigning more actively, voters became less favorably disposed toward him.
None of this is meant as a judgment on Romney’s worthiness as a candidate or accomplishments as a governor. But it is worth understanding that if elections are markets and candidates products, then Mitt Romney’s problems this time around aren’t some great mystery.
It’s just that no matter where he’s run, whether in primaries or statewide elections, he’s never sold particularly well.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.