Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mitt Romney may not strike most people as a particularly enigmatic figure, but a lot of mythology has nonetheless grown up around his political career. We can expect to see its resurgence now that he is reportedly running for president again. But we’ll understand the coming race much better if we slice through the fables.
1. The Republican establishment foisted Romney onto the rest of the party.
There is such a thing as the Republican establishment. Big donors, party strategists and elected officials disagree among themselves all the time, but they tend to have shared habits of thought that are reinforced by constant conversation — and these tend to be a little different from those of party activists or primary voters. And it’s true that the GOP establishment, in this sense, had settled on Romney before the 2012 Iowa caucuses.
But Romney wasn’t the first choice for many in the establishment. True, a few bigwigs were deeply committed to him from the start. But they hardly represented consensus opinion. That’s why we heard so many entreaties for other candidates to run. Henry Kissinger, Nancy Reagan and Rupert Murdoch were among those who urged Chris Christie to enter the race. Others pined for Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan or Jeb Bush.
During his first presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008, Romney positioned himself as the movement-conservative candidate rather than an establishment figure. The party establishment got behind him in 2012 only after other candidates refused to run, making him the most plausible nominee and president in the remaining field. His heavy support from donors and elected officials meant he was likely to win the race, but it did not force primary voters to back him.
Romney still has some strong supporters, but he may find that many of the donors and elected officials who helped him last time are with other candidates now — because they were never deeply committed to him personally. “Romney falls flat with GOP lawmakers” was a recent headline in the Hill, which reported that several of his early backers in the 2012 race are keeping their options open.
2. Romney lost over immigration.
As Politico recently put it, during his last run, Romney “suggested pursuing policies that lead undocumented immigrants to ‘self-deport’ — a remark that cost him badly among Hispanic voters in the general election.” His position on immigration almost certainly did hurt him among Hispanics.
The extent of the damage, though, is easily exaggerated. Exit polls found that Latinos gave Romney 27 percent of their votes, while whites gave him 59 percent of theirs: a 32-point gap. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had sponsored legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, ran in 2008, he had a 24-point gap, earning 31 percent of the Hispanic vote. So Romney clearly did worse.
But let’s say Romney had a 24-point gap, too. In that scenario, resulting in roughly one million additional votes for him, only one state would have flipped in his favor: Florida. Without more states and their electoral votes going for Romney, Obama would still have won reelection. Even if Romney had fought Obama to a draw among Hispanics — which would have been unprecedented for a Republican — he would still have lost Ohio, Virginia and the election.
3. Romney lost because he ran too far to the right.
Supposedly, under pressure from his rivals in the primaries, Romney took positions that made voters think of him as, well, “severely conservative,” to quote one of his own famously clumsy phrases. Jeb Bush recently suggested that he would try to avoid this dynamic if he ran for president.
Romney did move right for the primaries — the 2008 primaries, when he was running as the movement-conservative candidate. But he did not do much further flip-flopping, and in 2012 his rivals did not manage to pull him rightward. They did not, for example, attack him for being soft on illegal immigration and thus force him to harden his position. Instead, he was the one criticizing Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich for not being as tough as he was.
And yet Romney did not end up defined as an extremist. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck note that in November 2012, voters considered Romney closer to themselves ideologically than President Obama was. And a Gallup poll in October 2012 supported this notion. The survey found that 37 percent of voters said Obama was “a lot more liberal” than themselves, whereas just 23 percent said Romney was “a lot more conservative.”
4. Romney lost because evangelicals and conservatives deserted him.
This idea is a favorite of conservatives trying to argue that a candidate more conservative than Romney would have won the election. (It’s the opposite of Myth 3.) This past week, for example, Rush Limbaugh said that in 2012, as in previous years, the Republican nominee had taken the party’s conservative base for granted and thus caused it to “sit home” instead of voting.
Exit polls don’t back up the theory. Romney did better than McCain among conservative voters. He won roughly the same share of conservatives as George W. Bush did in 2004, the last time Republicans won the presidency — Bush won 84 percent and Romney won 82 percent. Nor was conservative turnout depressed. Conservatives made up 35 percent of the 2012 electorate, compared with 34 percent in 2004.
It was the same story among white evangelical Protestants. Romney got the same share of their vote (79 percent) as Bush had, and they were a higher share of the electorate in 2012 than in 2004 (23 vs. 21 percent).
5. Romney was a weak candidate.
Romney certainly had deep flaws. Suggesting that 47 percent of voters were moochers was a big unforced error. He never said how he would replace Obamacare, and the fact that he had advanced a similar health-care plan while governor of Massachusetts inhibited him from making the case against it. Aspects of his business career lent themselves to demonization by the Obama forces, and his wealth put distance between him and most voters.
Still, Romney ran ahead of almost all of his party’s Senate candidates — and sometimes well ahead. In Nebraska, Ohio and Arizona, he outperformed the Republican Senate hopefuls by more than two points. In six other states, he outperformed them by more than six points. So whatever Romney’s flaws were, he was still able to do better than other members of his party.
Some of the explanations for Romney’s loss are overblown. He does not appear to have lost because he was an especially unappealing candidate, or a too conservative or too moderate one, or one with a position on immigration offensive to Hispanics. It appears, instead, that what held him back was the electorate’s view of the Republican Party as a whole, especially its approach to economic issues. If he runs again, Romney should take note of that point, and so should his primary rivals.