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.)


Scott Monje September 21, 2012 at 12:46 pm

“I expect that Santorum or Gingrich or Bachmann would have the same problem, but even more so.”

It may be difficult to imagine, say, Santorum staking out a centrist position in the general election, but if he wanted to, wouldn’t he have greater flexibility to try than Romney? He wouldn’t have the same need to constantly prove himself to the right, and many independents wouldn’t know what his long-established positions were.

Andrew Gelman September 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm


I don’t think it would’ve be difficult for the Obama campaign to demonstrate Santorum’s extremism to the voters. This is not to say that Santorum would definitely have lost the general election–ideological positioning is just part of the story–but it’s hard for me to see him sneaking in to election day without voters learning about his far-right positions.

Tad September 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Andrew, while I agree that the Obama campaign would leave few stones unturned regarding Santorum’s views, votes and stated positions, his blue-collar story and abaility to describe having walked a mile in regular shoes should inoculate him to a large degree.

Most people have a hard time believing that someone who seems more like them than the other candidate is an extremist because they don’t view themselves as being extremists.

Matt Jarvis September 21, 2012 at 1:13 pm

“Only Nixon could pander to the independents.”

John Sides September 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Andy: Maybe the 47% video will make voters perceive Romney as further to the right, but he’s got some wiggle room there: on average, voters perceived him as closer to them than in Obama.

Andrew Gelman September 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm


Yes, I think that, even in September, many voters’ understanding of candidates’ ideology is still being formed.

Nadia Hassan September 21, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Professor Sides, that might depend on self reported ideology v. issues. For instance, Gallup found that voters were more likely to label the President “too liberal” than Romney “too conservative.” These results are also evident in Fox News and Resurgent Republic polls. It is also consistent with the fact that Americans tend to regard themselves as moderate to conservative in the abstract.

But Gallup also asked voters which candidate they agreed with more on the issues, and here Obama had a very modest edge. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, the President had a significant advantage on agreement on the issues. And in the August NBC/WSJ poll, a narrow majority of Americans said Romney was ‘out of the mainstream’ , whereas Obama was seen more favorably.

Earlier, Larry Jacobs said here that when issues are presented in the abstract v. people’s concrete needs and problems, inclinations differ somewhat. Things like the Ryan pick and the 47% remark might have drawn more attention to the ways in which Romney’s platform and vision is inconsistent with their policy preferences.

For some reference on this question of agreeing on the issues, Bush had an advantage over Gore on it following the debates in 2000.

John Sides September 21, 2012 at 3:33 pm

Andy: That may be true, although YouGov has been tracking this since early Feb and there hasn’t been much movement in the mean ideological placements. We’ll see what, if anything, changes in the weeks ahead.

Nadia: I was reporting ideological placements on a lib-con scale. It’s true that the NBC/WSJ “issue handling” questions are more favorable toward Obama. Of course, they are measuring something different — something closer to trust in the candidate. But there is every reason to believe that the latter might trump the former. Purely ideological reasoning and voting are often in short supply.

Nadia Hassan September 21, 2012 at 4:10 pm

I agree that purely ideological reasoning and voting are limited, especially with swing voters. Stimson and Ellis found in their study that ‘conflicted conservatives’ (i.e. conservative ideologically, but not always on policy positions) tended to be less informed and have less well defined and coherent worldviews. Also, Alan Abramowitz’ ‘Disappearing Center’ shows how swing voters often tend to be less engaged and interested in politics. It seems unlikely that Romney has especially damaged his chances by way of giving off cues that he is a right wing extremist. Indeed, Nate noted on a discussion of Romney’s convention acceptance speech, that he stuck to a safe, generic Republican pitch rather than a more bold, ideologically oriented one.

LV September 21, 2012 at 3:36 pm

All right — here are my criteria, as laid out in The Message Matters: If you are the insurgent, which Romney is, then you have to 1) identify an issue on which to refocus the election on which you are closer to most voters than your opponent, and 2) Your opponent must be “stuck” at his unpopular position on this issue so he cannot position himself next to you and split the vote with you. This issue is not always easy to identify, and refocusing the election on to it once identified may be even harder. Some insurgents succeed, most don’t. But most at least TRY!!! Romney has not done #1, therefor, he fails at #2, and #3 (priming it). This puts him squarely in the category of bad candidates. In fact, among the worst since the New Deal. Even Goldwater tried! He failed at criteria #1 (he was not closer to most voters’ ideal points on nuclear proliferation!) but he refocused the election onto that — that’s better than what Romney is doing in my book. You can’t punt. What is worse in my mind is that I think there issues for Romney that fit these criteria and could have been crafted into a well-honed, persuasive message — he was in a great position to steal this election away from the fundamental-predicted winner, and he couldn’t see his way to doing it. That makes his failure worse in my book.

Andrew Gelman September 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Ooooh, I’ve driven a wedge into the Vavreck/Sides axis. Cool!

Andrew Gelman September 21, 2012 at 4:33 pm

P.S. Also don’t forget my point that if the Republicans outspend the Dems by hundreds of millions of dollars and win the election, that wouldn’t represent Romney being a “good candidate” in the way that this is usually understood.

Dave September 21, 2012 at 8:26 pm

It’s possible that the money could matter, but based on the GOP primaries, I think the effect is over-rated. Yes, big outside money was able to keep candidates like Santorum and Gingrich afloat when they should’ve died long before, but it wasn’t really able to make a dent into Romney’s overall support. There have been oceans of ads in swing states and I don’t think most of them did anything, just a few memorable ones. I think the GOP primary made a solid case for the over-saturation of the airwaves nullifying the effect of TV ads.

Romney’s campaign itself has not been raising a lot of money compared to Obama, and as a result has a much smaller on-the-ground presence. The ground game is the most important and effective part of the campaign because voters want to be spoken to directly. There have been a lot of pundits and analysts that have said turnout will be an important issue for Obama, and his massive advantage in field offices is going to make that much easier for him.

Nadia Hassan September 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Professor Vavreck, I think that Romney’s tendency to play it safe and his own personal limitations might have constrained him on the trying front.

Moreover, he figured he was the clarifying candidate. This article is fascinating and references political science research:,9171,2104817,00.html

Sam Popkin September 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm

more damning that the comment didn’t matter because already factored in.

But it was factored in to party and not just to the candidate. Could W get through that primary without some of the same commitments Romney made? Remember when Romney was the proud father of healthcare mandate to avoid the alternative single payer solution?

Pinning it all on Romney, of course, is what hard care will do but note the beginning of a pushback. Could Mitt have puled a Souljah or is it too soon? He sure is no Dewey because Dewey organized the governors to counteract Taft and almost puled it off

hs September 22, 2012 at 9:01 pm

That is something that I find puzzling about how Romney’s been campaigning.

During the primaries, Romney’s biggest handicap was what he is–that he was a governor of Massachusetts, that he was the father of the “Romneycare,” etc. But, these are also the very things that he could leverage to show some distance between himself and the stereotypical GOP. The gaffe is one thing, but it was leaked in context where Romney has made no serious effort whatsoever to show that he is anything other than a “standard” Republican. Is it really a “personal” failing on the part of Romney that he hasn’t done anything, or does it say more about the nature of today’s Republican Party? Can Romney be a 2012 version of the “compassionate conservative” even if he tries?

hs September 22, 2012 at 9:03 pm

PS. Perhaps Matt Jarvis above has a point here: only a solid Red Stater with impeccable conservative credentials can be a “compassionate” conservative.

Chris Bastian September 21, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Your going in assumption — that Romney would be seen as a centrist, compared to the rest of the GOP field — required something else: that Romney would WANT to be seen as a centrist. I have occasionally pondered whether Romney ever thought: “if I throw all this Tea Party and Social Conservative baggage” over the side and campaign JUST on the economy and my business record, the other candidates will chop up the base vote and I can pull out the nomination without any damage to my General Election chances. But that, of course, would have required the courage to buck the Tea Party tide, and the willingness to risk his chances. Both elements have been in short to non-existent supply is his campaign.

Lorenzo from Oz September 21, 2012 at 10:23 pm

What is the evidence on election spending? My understanding was the effect was generally very limited.

Stephen September 22, 2012 at 3:26 am

It looks like your point 4 will be reversed. Currently, the Obama campaign + Priorities USA is spending more on swing state ads than the Romney campaign and its allies. If this situation continues, it is much more likely Romney will be stuck in a hopeless situation.

Christopher Gelpi September 22, 2012 at 3:27 pm

One thing that I think is making Romney look surprisingly bad (as did McCain), is that Republican electoral strategy has been focused on the Karl Rove model for the past dozen years or so. That is, you need not take median positions if you can mobilize a majority coalition by taking extreme positions that will attract single issue voters (“family” values, abortion, etc.).

This strategy worked for Bush in 2000 (at least with a bit of help from the butterfly ballot and the Supreme Court) and again in 2004, and it has become the “go to” strategy for Republican candidates especially because it works so well in the primaries. However, demographic changes in states that were critical to this strategy – such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado – have made this strategy very difficult to execute in a national campaign.

I wonder if that is why the Republican politics of wedge issues seems to have given them such success in the House of Representatives (and a number of state houses) where redistricting can make this strategy favorable. But broad demographic changes have prevented them from succeeding with this strategy in Senate and Presidential campaigns over the past 6 years.

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