With Rick Santorum’s exit from the presidential race, Mitt Romney can at last turn his attention to the general election. He’ll have to start by convincing his own party that his candidacy isn’t a lost cause.
Romney has never been popular with conservatives. But in recent weeks, the Republican intelligentsia has grown downright despondent about his chances. In March, the influential columnist George Will suggested Romney was hopeless and urged conservatives to “turn their energies to a goal much more attainable than, and not much less important than, electing Romney”—namely, winning both houses of Congress. In April, Joe Scarborough, the former GOP congressman and host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, declared, “I have yet to meet a single person in the Republican establishment that thinks Mitt Romney is going to win the general election this year.” Both were channeling a broad sentiment.
Ordinarily, such fatalism is the province of Democrats, not Republicans. What’s really odd, though, is that it’s probably unwarranted. While it’s true that most head-to-head polls show Romney trailing President Obama, these are snapshots that capture Romney at a particularly inopportune moment. His strength is almost certain to increase—and Obama’s could well decrease—before November.
For starters, Romney’s apparent weakness within his own party is largely a reflection of the internal divisions that open up whenever there’s a contested primary season. Right now, Democrats are more enthusiastic about Obama than Republicans are about Romney because a lot of Republicans would prefer someone else. Santorum’s exit will force most of them to reconcile themselves to the victor, just as Hillary Clinton’s supporters did, some grudgingly, in the 2008 Democratic primary. “It’s an emotional process characterized by stages of acceptance, almost like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief,” says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, who studies voter behavior in presidential elections. “It will take a while to adjust to that reality, but it will eventually benefit Romney.”
Another source of Republican gloom is that Obama’s political fortunes have been improving along with the economy. Six months of solid jobs gains and falling unemployment pushed Obama’s Gallup approval rating above the magical 50 percent threshold for a few days in early April, up from a low of 41 percent last fall. But on the same day he reached that benchmark—April 6th—the government reported the disappointing news that only 120,000 jobs were created in March, a reminder of just how fragile the economy remains.
That’s true of Obama’s political standing as well. His strength from the recovery is more limited than pundits suggest, and it is prone to exaggeration. Even six months of steady good news has failed to persuade most voters of the benefits of his stewardship. The latest Pew Research Center poll found that 43 percent approve of how he has handled the economy—vs. 53 percent who disapprove. In fact, the whole notion that we’re experiencing a “recovery” is very much in dispute. Three-quarters of Americans believe the economy is still in recession, according to an April 10 Washington Post-ABC News poll, and most said they trust Romney to do a better job of turning things around.
“The top issue in the election is not just the state of the economy but where it’s headed in the long term,” says Jim Kessler, vice president of Third Way, a Democratic think tank that released a poll of 1,000 swing-state independents on April 9th. “Voters are riddled with doubt, and the independents we surveyed were slightly closer to Romney ideologically. My guess is that sometime in next three or four months he’ll be even with or ahead of Obama.”
Most Washington insiders are familiar with these numbers. They know that at a similar point in their campaigns, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan each looked to be in worse shape than Romney does, and went on to win handily. Somehow, though, that knowledge hasn’t translated into enthusiasm for Romney’s chances. Why such negative views? Some detractors, like Will and Scarborough, may be allowing their personal distaste for the candidate to color their perception. Others doubt Romney because he lacks the obvious personal charisma that Clinton and Reagan had in spades, and therefore seems unlikely to be able to mount a similar surge to the White House.
Yet history suggests this probably won’t matter—that voters of both parties will pay little heed to Romney’s personal qualities and will instead focus overwhelmingly on Obama. One remarkably consistent pattern across the last several decades is that incumbent presidents, not their challengers, drive the behavior of supporters and opponents alike. According to Pew, when George W. Bush stood for reelection in 2004, nearly every Republican cast his vote “for Bush,” but only 33 percent of Democrats voted “for John Kerry”—the remaining 66 percent said they were voting “against Bush.” The same pattern held when Bob Dole challenged Clinton in ’96: most Democrats voted for Clinton, while most Republicans voted against him, rather than for Dole. It also held in 1992, when George H.W. Bush’s supporters voted for his re-election, and Clinton’s voted en masse against Bush.
This year will be no exception. When Pew inquired last October, Republicans by nearly 3-to-1 said they were motivated to vote against Obama. For conservatives dubious about Romney’s political abilities, that’s awfully good news. Even better, Romney appears to possess the one quality that really does matter in a challenger.
“What drives most voters in presidential elections,” Buchanan says, “is the state of the economy, party identification, and whether there’s reason to want to fire the incumbent.” The weak economy will be reason enough for many, especially if the recovery falters. Still, Romney will need more than that to win. In order to fire a president, Buchanan says, a challenger must meet a basic threshold of competence. That’s also welcome news for Romney. He may not excite the GOP establishment. But if competence is the hurdle he must clear, his chances of following Clinton and Reagan are better than his own party seems to realize.