Many political analysts and pundits early on settled on the belief that Mitt Romney was the most electable Republican presidential candidate. But why? Until recently Romney looked like he would struggle to even win his party’s nomination let alone the general. His track record in prior races is abysmal and he has been running for president for a record 5 years and counting.
Now to be fair the GOP field is not chock-full of winners in tough states or districts. Jon Huntsman won two gubernatorial races in the uber-Republican state (helps if you are a Mormon to) of Utah. Rick Perry also hails from a red state, TX, but at least can say he won when the state was still tepid to Republicans and has never lost any of the nine races he has run for. Ron Paul comes from an extremely rural and Republican district and has lost prior races. Newt Gingrich won all his Congressional races but as Speaker could be said to be a proxy-national figure and thus the GOP presidential loss in 96 and losing of Congressional seats in 98 could be blamed in part on him. Then we get to Rick Santorum. Santorum first ran for office in 1990 in Southeastern Pennsylvania. He scored a significant upset over a Democratic incumbent 51%-49%. In 1992 he won again in the district that remained heavily Democratic. In 1994 he ran for Senate and won resoundingly. In 2000 he won reelection even as Bush was losing the state in the presidential contest. The one blot on his electoral record is 2006 when he was clobbered by 18 points. It does need to be mentioned that was a horrible national year for the GOP and he ran ahead of the GOP candidate for governor’s total (though Santorum was an incumbent).
Now let’s look at Romney’s electoral record. Romney first ran for elected office in 1994 in MA where he was clobbered by now deceased former Senator Teddy Kennedy. This despite the fact this was the year of the Republican Revolution. In 2002 Romney decided to try his hand again at running for elected office and became Governor of MA, albeit with less than 50% of the vote. Romney’s signature achievement of his tenure was his state-run healthcare plan, but he was so unpopular by 2006 when he was up for reelection he opted out. Then in 2007 he decided to run for the White House. He lost that GOP nomination contest. So Romney is really 1-2 in the races he has run in MA and 0-1 nationally. Not exactly the stuff of champions. If we include all the states races he lost in the 2008 GOP presidential nomination contest his percentage looks even worst.
So looked at purely through an unbiased perspective Santorum likely has the best electoral record (even including 2006). He won in a state that is at best neutral to the GOP and at worst inhospitable to them at statewide level. Paul, Perry, and Huntsman all have won the majority of their races but few (except a couple of Perry’s) were tough. And Gingrich has shown in the national stage he can only survive so long.
It is not just individual races one has to look at to determine whether a candidate is the best nominee. Charisma, regional appeal, ideology, location of the place being run for, the political environment and more all play into it. Romney is the best fit for suburban voters who might be inclined to vote for the GOP this year. Paul for rural and anti-establishment/libertarian voters. Perry would be the best fit for Southern and social conservatives. Santorum for blue-collar workers and social conservatives. Huntsman might fit best in the mold of the Rockefeller wing of the GOP (dying but still exists).
Romney’s ability to adapt to changing political situations does need to be called into question. In 1994 when Kennedy attacked Romney for being a corporate hack he had no good defense. In 2008 when Romney was even more moderate than where he is today he allowed himself to be painted almost as far to the right as Huckabee was by McCain. And now we see the attacks on him ranging from Romneycare to working for Bain Capital only being stopped by fellow conservatives who oppose anything tainted with the politics of class warfare. Romney has breezed through this campaign by letting the non-Romney field eliminate itself while he has not had to defend his action or record. Once he hits the general election this does not bode well for how his camp will respond to Obama attacks backed by millions of dollars.
As for Romney polling the best in the GOP field I would remind people of 1980 when the GOP nomination contest had barely begun. Ronald Reagan trailed President Carter by 32 points in the first Gallup survey. HW. Bush ran better but still trailed. Obviously the early polls were wrong just as today’s early polls could be. Romney is the best known of the GOP field and that may help explain why he polls better against Obama. Even Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum poll competitively against the president.
So when all this is considered is Romney still the best nominee? Why is he the best nominee?