Yes, Mitt Romney is a bad candidate

by Andrew Gelman on September 21, 2012 · 22 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Following up on John’s observations, I just had a few things to add:

1. There’s evidence from various sources that centrists do better in elections compared to political extremists. When I looked at Romney several months ago, I thought voters would like him because, compared to his primary-election rivals Gingrich, Santorum, Bachmann, etc., he’s a centrist.

I was wrong when I predicted that “Romney will start the general election campaign with a healthy lead.” One thing I didn’t account for was that Romney has not done the expected move to the center during the general election campaign.

2. With that in mind, I can see how Romney’s leaked “47%” video could hurt him on election day. Not because it’s a “gaffe” (I agree with John that gaffes are overrated), but because Romney’s remarks, beyond being misinformed, provide evidence that he’s on the far right. That sort of information will hurt him (on average) with voters, especially given that it’s consistent with other information in that direction such as the Paul Ryan VP pick.

3. Do points 1 and 2 make Romney a “bad candidate”? I’d say Yes. Presenting yourself as an extremist in the general election, that’s poor strategy. Maybe, due to the internal dynamics of the Republican party, Romney had no choice but to present himself this way. I expect that Santorum or Gingrich or Bachmann would have the same problem, but even more so. Still, I think it’s fair to label Romney as a bad candidate, even if he’s stronger than any of the immediate alternatives.

4. If it’s really true that the Republicans will outspend the Democrats by hundreds of millions of dollars during this campaign, then this should make a difference. Romney could even win. That’s not about his strength as a candidate or voter appeal, it’s about the resources his campaign can deploy.

To summarize, I agree with John that we start from the fundamentals. But also there’s a benefit for candidates who are closer to the political center. And then there is the candidates’ personal appeal, along with factors such as ethnicity and religion that are particularly relevant this year. And resources. Don’t forget resources.

So I don’t think you can simply subtract the election outcome from the fundamentals-based forecast and label this as candidate quality. Romney could well be a bad candidate and still be bailed out by $. (Yes, you could consider money to be part of candidate quality, but I don’t think that’s usually what people are talking about. I think the discussion is usually framed in terms of popular appeal.)

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