The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Mitt Romney’s withdrawal says about parties and presidential nominations

Mitt Romney (Steve Pope/Getty Images)

As news junkies already know, Mitt Ronney has ended his brief 2016 presidential “exploration.” Romney never became a formal candidate, so, technically speaking, he isn’t withdrawing from the race, but when your announcement that you are not running makes headlines after weeks of signaling that you kinda sorta are running, this is a distinction without a difference. Romney wasn’t quietly mulling a bid. He was test-marketing one. Like many presidential aspirants, Romney tested the waters and found they were not warm. This sort of thing happens every four years during the “invisible primary” phase of the presidential nomination campaign.

Many will speculate about what Romney’s decision means for the GOP’s chances in 2016 or its impact on particular Republican presidential contenders. These are valid questions. Yet this episode is also interesting for what it illustrates about the dynamics of parties and presidential nominations.

Three factors that scholars and other political observers look at in trying to predict campaign outcomes are poll numbers, fundraising and endorsements or other signs of party elite support. In our book, “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations before and after Reform,” my co-authors and I argue for a continued important role for party elites in the modern post-reform presidential nomination process. Voters ultimately elect the delegates that formally select nominees, but party elites have influence over outcomes, not least in helping to shape the field by encouraging some candidates and discouraging others. (This is also true for nominations for other offices, but the book is focused on presidential races.)

Party elites want a candidate who can win and who will reflect their wishes when making policy. What party elites from interest group leaders and elected officials to activists want is often different from what the broader public does, so if they have significant influence over nomination outcomes, that has important implications for representation and policy-making.

Since Romney did not declare his candidacy, we don’t have fundraising totals to pore over, but one thing we can say is that money has never been a problem for Romney. Reports indicated that some fundraisers were supportive this time, and the enormously wealthy Romney could self-fund for a while if it came to that.

Polling was also encouraging. The period in which a Romney candidacy was widely discussed was brief, but not so brief that there was no polling. And it’s notable that whether the polls were national or focused on Iowans, Romney was well in the lead, zooming past Jeb Bush, who had previously been in first place.

On the other hand, the third factor, party elite support, was much less promising for the former Massachusetts governor. Two weeks ago The New York Times reported that “interviews with more than two dozen Republican activists, elected officials and contributors around the country reveal little appetite for another Romney candidacy.” GOP members of Congress, including some who had supported the former governor’s previous nomination campaigns, also evinced little enthusiasm about the prospect of Romney Redux.

If we look at prominent Republican voices in the media Mitt-mania was not evident. The Wall Street Journal — a prominent voice in GOP circles — published a harsh editorial about the idea of a third Romney bid, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a dogged Mitt-booster in 2012, poured cold water on the idea of another candidacy by the former governor.

We cannot know all the factors that went into Romney’s decision, and maybe we never will. Politics, as Bismarck said, is not an exact science, and neither is political science. But as far as it goes, the abortive Romney 2016 bid is consistent with a view of campaigns in which party elites play an important role. Romney had the poll numbers. He has the money. What he didn’t have was a warm welcome from party elites. Romney by now has a lot of experience in presidential campaigns. It seems he drew conclusions from the signals he got. Campaign analysts should, too.