Having singlehandedly made the “Romney 2016!” dream possible, I feel obliged now to start kicking the sand castle over. I’m inspired by this thought from Ramesh Ponnuru:
Romney has sometimes lost but never been humiliated. A campaign now seems to me to run a non-trivial risk of that outcome.
— Ramesh Ponnuru (@RameshPonnuru) January 14, 2015
Ross Douthat made the same point a few months ago:
As Philip Klein has pointed out, Romney has almost nothing in common with Richard Nixon, the last defeated general-election candidate to successfully re-enter the lists. Nixon was a brilliant political infighter who had served as vice president for eight years after a successful congressional career and who lost one of the closest presidential elections in history; Romney is a one-term governor who underperformed in all three of his presidential campaigns (losing a winnable primary campaign in ’08, struggling to put away Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the ’12 primaries, and then disappointing relative to his own pollsters’ expectations in the general election) for reasons that were obvious to anyone who followed his performance on the trail. He has one great debate performance, an impressive private-sector career and a lot of human decency on his resume, but he offers nothing that’s responsive to the reasons the G.O.P. has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections … no innovative policy portfolio on domestic issues (unlike Rubio and Ryan and Rand Paul), no record of broadening the party’s coalition to include more working class or black or Hispanic or young or female voters (unlike Christie, in his re-elect campaign), and no personal or biographical qualities (unlike Rubio, among others) that might help a little with G.O.P. rebranding among minorities or working-class voters…
I think Republican voters understand this, even if some Republican consultants do not, which means that as long as there is somebody else who fits the party-unifying profile — most likely Rubio, possibly Christie, maybe a gubernatorial dark horse — a Romney campaign would lead the polls based on name recognition and then collapse upon contact with political reality.
There is, as Ponnuru says, a non-trivial risk of that happening. Maybe, by sheer force of name recognition and boatloads of cash, Romney can hang around with 20-25 percent of the vote through the early states. Jeb Bush would pull another 20 percent, Christie would pull 10, and then the other half or so of the party would divide among various right-wing candidates. Romney could live with that outcome; it would give him a shot of winning both Iowa and New Hampshire as some critical mass of undecided Republicans chooses to vote strategically on “electability” grounds. If can win one of those states, he’d be viable to win Florida too: He won it in 2012, after all, and will stand a fair chance at a repeat given his ability to buy ad time in the state’s expensive media markets. Maybe he wins Florida too, consolidates the centrist vote after a faltering Bush and Christie drop out, and then take his chances the rest of the way against one or two conservative favorites. In other words, maybe he re-runs the race he ran three years ago and it works for him again. Maybe. That’s the very best best-case scenario.
But what about the worst-case scenario? The idea of Romney faring roughly as well against Bush, Christie, Walker, Paul, Cruz, Huckabee, Jindal, Perry, and maybe Rubio as he did against also-rans like Gingrich, Santorum, and Herman Cain is ridiculous. Look no further than New Hampshire: Romney won the state going away in 2012, due mainly to the fact that his closest competition there was … Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. What’s more likely to happen here, a la Douthat, is that he’ll get a bounce when he jumps in the race in the next month or two, probably leaping up temporarily to around 35 percent, and then his support will gradually erode as other candidates enter and introduce themselves to the public. Bush and Christie will both benefit from “not Mitt again” sentiment; so will center-right fusion candidates like Walker. It’s more likely, I think, that Romney heads to Iowa polling somewhere in the teens and that, as everyone expects, he ends up losing there to Huckabee, Paul, or even Bush. He’ll probably stick around for the New Hampshire primary a few weeks later — it won’t be easy to quit before the state that catapulted him to the nomination last time goes to vote — but I can see him entering that race in, say, fifth place behind Jeb, Rand, Walker, and maybe Christie or Rubio. Which brings me to my question in the headline: If that’s how he’s polling a week before the NH primary, what does he do? Huntsman staked everything on winning New Hampshire in 2012; he dropped out a week later after finishing third. Would Romney be willing to submit to the same fate or will he drop out beforehand if the polls look bad, purely as a matter of pride? Losing badly in a state that he won three years ago, right next door to the state he governed for four years, would be such a searing humiliation that I suspect he wouldn’t submit to it. If it looks like he’s destined to lose, I think he’d make the one move left to him to preserve his dignity and quit before letting New Hampshire fire him. That way he could play kingmaker before the big vote, throwing his support to Jeb or Christie or Rubio or whoever. If that man ended up winning the state, propelling him to the nomination, then at least Romney could claim some sort of legacy from that.
As it is, by running again I think he’s stumbling towards building a different legacy, that of the data-crunching managerial genius who somehow couldn’t see harbingers of doom that were right in front of his face. Like Douthat says, his own polling team screwed up so badly that Team Mitt genuinely was caught by surprise on election night to find out they’d lost, and lost badly. Project ORCA, the campaign’s GOTV apparatus, became an Internet punchline after the fact. If Romney runs now and finishes as an afterthought, it’ll be one more sign that the whiz kid couldn’t read the tea leaves placed before him despite 20 years of practice in electoral politics that included two previous presidential runs. I hope, for the sake of his own peace of mind, he contends next year. At least for awhile.