In the documentary Mitt, which follows the titular Romney and his family through two presidential campaigns, the former Massachusetts governor gripes that nominees who lose “become a loser for life.” “Mike Dukakis, you know, he can’t get a job mowing lawns,” he joked. “We just brutalize whoever loses.”
It’s an accurate observation, but for Romney, it hasn’t been true. While he ended 2012 a scorned member of the Republican family, he has spent the past year a virtual kingmaker. His endorsement carried weight in the 2014-midterm primaries and he was a sought-after surrogate on the campaign stump. This “failed” nominee was so important to the GOP that his “ideas” summit, held last summer in Utah, drew the whole field of party luminaries and presidential contenders, from former running mate Rep. Paul Ryan to Sen. Rand Paul, Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rob Portman, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The former presidential nominee turned influential insider is more than just a nice sinecure for a politician in the twilight of his career. It’s the foundation for another presidential run. Which is why it was no surprise when, on Friday, the former standard-bearer announced that he was, once more, a presidential contender. “I want to be president,” he told a group of 30 donors in New York. And while he hasn’t begun the long process of building a campaign, close advisers believe he’s serious. Here’s the Washington Post:
“What he has said to me before is, ‘I am preserving my options.’ What he is now saying is, ‘I am seriously considering a run,’ ” said Bobbie Kilberg, a top donor from Virginia who raised millions of dollars for Romney’s 2012 bid. She was briefed by attendees on Romney’s Friday comments. “And he said that in a room with 30 people. That is a different degree of intensity.”
All of this is easy to mock. Charisma-challenged and square, Romney seems like a tarnished candidate, a fact underscored by his ill fit in the 2012 presidential primaries and his bumbling throughout the general election, which saw disasters like his “47 percent” remarks and his second debate performance. There’s also the fact that only one person in recent history has lost a presidential general election and then came back to win the prize—Richard Nixon—a feat that only (barely) happened after a decade of one-party control, racial violence, and domestic disruption. If Romney attempts a comeback, it will be against the political headwinds—for any Republican candidate—of relative peace and a growing economy.
That said, it’s not crazy for Romney to think that he’s still viable. While there are bad candidates, it’s also true that losing casts a pall over the memory of the campaign. Neutral incidents are remembered as missteps, and missteps are remembered as disasters. If John McCain had won the 2008 election, his decision to suspend his campaign amid the collapse of the economy would have looked wise instead of standing as a monument to political incompetence. And if Barack Obama had lost re-election, then his hyperfocus on particular segments of the electorate—black Americans, young women, Latinos—would have seemed like a waste of resources, instead of smart and efficient.
Romney made a lot of mistakes, from his rhetoric—a plutocratic message geared to “job creators”—to the actual structure of his campaign. But if “bad candidate” means he underperformed relative to the fundamentals, then he wasn’t a bad candidate. He was average. Given 1.8 percent gross domestic product growth in the first seven months of 2012, President Obama was projected to win 51.2 percent of the two-party vote. He won 52 percent, to Romney’s 48 percent.
It’s possible that a stronger, more charismatic Republican could have moved the needle and beat the fundamentals. But I doubt it. A growing economy is like a Power Star for an incumbent president, and barring some other disaster—like a bungled war or serious terrorist attack—there’s little you can do to stop the momentum. And even then, it’s difficult. John Kerry outperformed the fundamentals and still lost the 2004 election. It’s not that he was a bad candidate, it’s that beating an incumbent president is hard.
There won’t be an incumbent in 2016, and there’s a good chance Americans will want a different party at the helm. If Romney were the nominee, there’s no doubt that he could win the presidency. Indeed, it would fit the pattern of his political career—after losing his race for Senate in 1994, he came back to win a gubernatorial race in 2002.
The question isn’t whether he could win a general election, it’s whether he could win a Republican primary. Given the fractured field, I think he could, especially since the marquee candidate—Jeb Bush—is largely unproven in national politics.
With all of that said, however, I’m not sure if Romney is actually running for president, or if he’s playing a different game. In a story for BuzzFeed, McKay Coppins talks to Romney advisers who give this take on the former nominee’s thinking:
“Look, Jeb’s a good guy. I think the governor likes Jeb,” the adviser said. “But Jeb is Common Core, Jeb is immigration, Jeb has been talking about raising taxes recently. Can you imagine Jeb trying to get through a Republican primary? Can you imagine what Ted Cruz is going to do to Jeb Bush? I mean, that’s going to be ugly.”
Romney thinks Bush can win a general election, but he’s much more skeptical about the primary and worries that Bush could lose, elevating a candidate who might fail in a fight against Hillary Clinton or Sen. Elizabeth Warren. But instead of criticizing Bush and bringing these questions into the open, he is making a more subtle move. By announcing interest in the Republican nomination, Romney is freezing his donors in place and blocking a rush to the Bush camp. In essence, he’s asking the moneymen of the GOP to wait and see before they join the Bush bandwagon.
And if Team Bush isn’t as strong as it looks? Then, maybe, Romney will give the game one more try.