Posted by on September 19, 2023 2:41 pm
Categories: News The Hill

Romney’s great regret  

In an alternate universe, the Republican Party would be facing a free-for-all for the 2024 nomination, but not to challenge President Biden. Instead, the primary would be to succeed a President Romney. 

It is hard to believe, given the current state of the GOP and national politics, but a Romney administration was not only a plausible alternative to Trump, but even a likelihood, had Romney been resolute and not dithered in 2016. Given the last eight years, surely Romney is regretting his indecision. 

Playing Hamlet never works in politics 

Donald Trump was hardly the consensus pick by Republicans in the 2016 elections. He took longer to secure the GOP nomination than any nominee since Gerald Ford in 1976. His nomination was greeted with excitement by Democrats and dread by Republican grandees who failed to fully appreciate how maladroit a campaigner Hillary Clinton was. 

In fact, Romney was the front-runner among putative Republican candidates in January 2015, with 59 percent wanting the former Massachusetts governor to run against 26 percent opposed. Jeb Bush polled behind at 50 percent favoring a run against 27 percent opposed. Yet, Romney hesitated while the younger Bush snapped up much of Romney’s 2012 campaign personnel, in a clear bid to box him out. 

Maybe Romney didn’t have the drive left in him for another run, after his failed 2012 bid for president. But if he thought that losing the insider game to Bush made Jeb a tough-to-beat front-runner, Romney badly misread the room. The political ground had shifted in President Obama’s second term and both Republicans and disaffected Democrats and independents were done with politics as usual, providing Trump an opening. 

The rest of the story is better known. Jeb Bush proved to be a dud as a national candidate, totally flummoxed by Trump’s no-holds-barred attacks. Well before the calendar turned to 2016, his candidacy had collapsed, even if Jeb didn’t know it. The real opponents for Trump were Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. 

Romney v. Trump 

But what if Romney had made the decision to run? Would he have won the GOP nomination?  

In Republican politics, experience matters. Since 1948, Republicans have nominated candidates who previously ran on the national ticket 8 of 11 times when there was no Republican president running for reelection. The only “inexperienced” candidates were Dwight Eisenhower, George W. Bush and Barry Goldwater, and each of those nominees did not face a candidate who was previously on a national ticket. 

It is also a lot less likely Romney would have been stunned into spluttering silence by Trump, as Jeb Bush was. A Romney candidacy would have left a lot less room for John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio — all candidates who were working to appeal to parts of the traditional GOP base, whether business or social conservatism. As for Jeb, he was clearly not ready for prime time. 

Trump was saved by winning New Hampshire in 2016. But Romney won the Granite State in 2012 and finished a close second in 2008. Trump also struggled for most of the primary season to win a majority of the vote in any state. With a much stronger Romney in the race, the detritus of Kasich, Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum and others gets cleared earlier.  

A combination of past Romney supporters and anti-Trump voters could very well have been enough to win the nomination. Not to mention, it is unlikely that Trump would have had quite the preponderance of free media coverage facing the 2012 GOP nominee, and Romney would have had an experienced campaign team to manage delegate recruitment. 

Romney v. Clinton 

If there is anything Republicans and Democrats can agree on, it is that Hillary Clinton is a terrible politician — and her wobbly campaign reflected that. Trump, outspent, the object of constant media derision and repellant to women voters, still won. But could a wealthy, establishment Republican have beaten her? More likely yes than no. 

Trump flipped six states and an electoral vote from Maine, which is not that much, historically. Given that the second Obama term was marked politically by Democrats losing 13 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate, resulting in GOP control of both chambers, the political winds were certainly against the Democrats. In addition, rising income inequality and a negative mood in the country, with the percentage considering the nation on the “wrong track” at 63.1 percent (as opposed to 54.7 percent on the eve of the 2012 election), means any Republican would be in a favorable position. 

Trump certainly broke through to working-class voters in a way that Romney was unlikely to have done. But Trump also alienated white suburban women to a degree Romney would not have. In the overall, it seems likely that Romney would have flipped Ohio, Florida and Iowa, with flipping only Wisconsin and New Hampshire necessary to win. 

In spite of all the whining by the most conservative wing of the party, Romney performed pretty well against Obama in 2012. Of the 10 presidential races with an incumbent president or a vice president completing a term, only twice was the incumbent defeated, and only John Kerry in 2004 performed better in a loss. Further, Obama had a 52 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable in the last Gallup poll while George W. Bush was only net favorable 48 percent to 47 percent. Romney performed better than the presidential approval, while Kerry did not. 

Populist wildcard 

The open question is, where does all the populist energy go? Trump did not just conjure it out of nowhere, in spite of the denial that exists among the coastal elites. Populism has swept across Europe and the Americas and that impulse has to find a home.  

Could Mitt Romney have captured at least a portion of the new populism? He was able to get the social conservative movement – but the real growth is in economic populism. 

In their desperation to beat Trump, Democrats turned away from their own populist, Bernie Sanders. Would the Democrats have turned to Sanders with Romney in the White House? It is difficult to see Democrats reluctantly rallying to Joe Biden as the barely acceptable option.  

Perhaps today Democrats would be struggling with a nativist-populist insurgency and Republicans would be the staid establishment. More likely, both parties would be facing populist revolts from the right and the left, with a second-term president facing a hostile Congress. But the nation would have avoided all the Trump sturm und drang and the spectacle of a former president potentially headed to prison.  

When you fail to seize the day, somebody else will, and for Romney that somebody was Donald Trump. 

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711. 

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