It is true that Mitt Romney is a weak frontrunner who simply cannot close the deal against two opponents who have both little money and organizational support. (After all, even Bob Dole and John McCain had it in the bag by mid-March.) But one explanation has to do with the primary calendar this cycle.
The Republican party changed its calendar pretty dramatically between 2008 and 2012 – whereas last cycle the primary process was heavily front-loaded, this year it is stretched out much longer. To appreciate that, consider this graph, which tracks the cumulative allocation of delegates week-by-week in the 1996, 2008, and 2012 Republican primary battles.
Right now, we are in the tenth week of the GOP primary battle, and about half of the delegates have been allocated. But check out the lines in 2008 and 2012, at this point in those cycles roughly 80 percent of the delegates had been allocated!
What does this mean in terms of Romney’s political strength? Put simply: it blunts it. This slow allocation of delegates gives poorly funded candidates time to stake out ground in smaller states, pick up a surprising win or two, gain momentum, and challenge the frontrunner.
There simply was not time for this in previous cycles. In 1996 Dole had a firewall in South Carolina and in 2008 McCain had a firewall in Florida. Both of these victories had the effect of blocking whatever momentum the challengers may have developed (with Pat Buchanan in New Hampshire and Mitt Romney in Michigan). The firewalls blunted the momentum because within days a majority of the delegates were allocated on massive Super Tuesdays. There was simply no time for the challengers to regroup, focus on a state, and swing the momentum back.
This time around, Florida served as a seemingly excellent firewall for Mitt Romney – he won it decisively in a four-way battle, despite the fact that he had just previously lost South Carolina. So why couldn't he wrap it up? Nothing really happened after Florida. Instead, Santorum was able to win small caucus states (Colorado and Minnesota), and suddenly he was back in the game.
If half or more of the delegates had been allocated within a week after Florida, where do you suppose we would be now? It would be over and Romney would be the presumptive nominee. A week after Florida, the RealClearPolitics average had Romney enjoying his largest nationwide lead of nearly 12 points, so he would have utterly dominated the field and wrapped up the nomination. Instead, we had big surprises in Colorado and Minnesota, sufficient for Santorum to recapture the momentum and catapult up to a nationwide lead.
This is not to argue that Mitt Romney is a strong frontrunner in any objective sense. Comparing him to Dole and McCain is not terribly favorable! The point is that the calendar adds to his weakness.
And to drill this down and really secure the point, let’s compare McCain’s 2008 performance against Romney’s this time around. That’s tough because McCain basically wrapped things up on Super Tuesday, but there is a way to approach the task. There have been to date 17 contests in the 2012 GOP battle that occurred on or before Super Tuesday in 2008. This gives us 17 apples-to-apples comparison of how Romney is doing this time compared to McCain last time. The following chart looks at the share of the primary vote or caucus each carried.
So what we see is that Romney actually has done better than McCain in 60 percent of the common battles so far. What’s more, Romney won 43.4 percent of the delegates in these contests, compared to 39.5 percent for McCain. And if we take the average vote haul in these states (weighted by number of delegates), Romney has won 35.0 percent of the vote compared to 29.3 percent for McCain.
In other words, Romney ’12 is running a pretty solid 4-to-6 percent ahead of McCain ‘08. Again, not the sign of a particularly dominant front-runner, but also not the sign of a uniquely weak one, either.
Where McCain had an advantage was that he enjoyed a huge delegate haul Super Tuesday (which remember was in early February) from states he dominated – California, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York. That basically sealed the deal for him. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that Romney will do just as well as McCain (if not better than him) in these states, but the problem for Romney is that none of them vote until at least April. California -- sure to be Romney's single best state in terms of delegates -- does not cast its ballots until June.
So here’s my bottom line: Yes, Romney looks weak this time around, and I certainly would not argue that he’s a particularly strong front-runner. However, we have to account for the shift in the calendar, in particular the end of front-loading. When we do that, we see that Romney is stronger than McCain and probably stronger than Dole (but weaker than Bush 43). So, he’s not strong per se, but his weakness this time is perhaps a bit misunderstood.