Is Mitt Romney a Bad Candidate?

The only way to answer the question in the title of this post is to ask a second question: “Compared to what?”  I see a lot of people piling on Romney, but fewer people thinking this through.

First, you can ask about Romney compared to some other specific Republican.  If that’s the question, it’s hard to say that Romney is definitively worse.  Than the other candidates who ran in the primary?  Gingrich, Santorum, etc.?  Than candidates who didn’t run, like Christie or Daniels or Thune or whoever?   I caution against assuming that there was some savior waiting in the wings.  Remember when that savior was going to be Rick Perry or, back in 2008, Fred Thompson?  The fact is, once any candidate gets in the race, the bloom comes off the rose and we quickly discover their shortcomings as well.  Maybe one of these candidates would have been slightly “better” than Romney as of September 2012, but that’s not a slam-dunk case.

Another way to answer “compared to what?” is to compare where the race stands now to what the fundamentals would predict.  Let’s say Obama will beat Romney by something like half a point (in the two-party vote).  That is based on a statistical averaging of the various forecasting models by Jacob Montgomery et al., which pegs Obama’s share of the two-party vote at 50.3% (see here).  At this point, with Obama’s convention bump perhaps dissipating somewhat (or perhaps not?), Romney trails Obama by 3 points, according to Pollster. So, by this reckoning, Romney’s running about 2.5 points behind where he “should” be—although there is reason to suspect that this gap will close.

But if you don’t take the Montgomery et al. averaging of the models as the definitive take on the fundamentals, and you believe the forecasts that are more optimistic for Obama (like the one Lynn and I present in The Gamble, or the Erikson and Wlezien model here), then in fact Romney is not under-performing right now.  In fact, maybe Obama is (slightly).

I’m not suggesting that we can definitively settle this now.  But I don’t think we can say with confidence that Romney is significantly  worse than a generic GOP candidate.  We’ll have a better sense in November, obviously.

19 Responses to Is Mitt Romney a Bad Candidate?

  1. Acilius September 21, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    “I don’t think we can say with confidence that Romney is significantly worse than a generic GOP candidate.” I’d go further and say that Mr Romney effectively is a generic GOP candidate. Not only because persuadable voters are paying little enough attention that his party affiliation is the main thing they know about him, but also because those of his statements and actions that have been covered in the news media align so closely with familiar images and stereotypes of the Republican Party that such coverage adds very little to anyone’s knowledge of him.

  2. Greg Dworkin September 21, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    what about using favorable/unfavorable ratio? That alone makes him a bad candidate (I fully accept your ‘fundamentals’ reading)

    • John Sides September 21, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

      Greg: That raises a different, but potentially quite appropriate, point of comparison: previous presidential candidates. Romney’s fav ratio does appear to be worse than that of others for which we have data. Good point.

  3. Andreas Moser September 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Shockingly, Mitt Romney is even a bad candidate compared to the previous Republican candidates:
    But I agree with you that the Republican Party did not have any better candidate, maybe except for Ron Paul.

    • crf September 21, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

      How’d they be doing worse with Chris Christie? That guy actually won an election, for example.

      • Nick Benjamin September 21, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

        So has Mitt. Both were elected Governor once. Granted Christie won election to local office once or twice before that, and Romney lost for Senate and the WH. But in terms of victories in state-wide races they’re even.

        The problem with Christie is partly personality. Being an abrasive loudmouth with strong opinions plays great in NJ, and when you’re agreeing with the GOP base it plays great in a GOP primary; but Chris Christie just isn’t the kind of guy who wins Ohio.

        More importantly it’s hard to see how Christie would have survived the GOP primary if he’d dare question any element of GOP orthodoxy. Which means that nominee Christie has the same etch-a-sketch issues Mitt does.

        • LFC September 21, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

          IIRC, Buddy Roemer got one vote in the roll call of the states at the Repub convention (I think it was a vote from Texas). I wonder if any Repubs are sorry now they didn’t give Roemer more of a hearing.

  4. ThePoliticalOmnivore September 21, 2012 at 12:42 pm #

    I think he is an ENORMOUSLY weak candidate.

    1. He is fundamentally at odds with his base. His signature achievement (RomneyCare) is the thing they are ideologically running against. He is distrusted and at best an awkward conservative being forced to be an extreme one. It isn’t a good fit and he isn’t a great actor.

    2. He came out of the primaries wounded. Being led by people of far, far lesser stature and so many might well be a first for a nominee. It doesn’t help to be led by Bachmann and Trump and Cain and it doesn’t help with party unity that he had to launch attacks on them. His slew of debates created endless YouTube-viewable policy positions that will come back during the debates and beyond.

    3. He was attacked on his Bain record by Newt Gingrich–which makes playing the patriotism-card against later attacks much harder. It also helped “introduce” him earlier than the Democrats could have and added to his counter-narrative (that he is a wealthy plutocrat who does not care about the poor). This is a worse political introduction than I can remember a candidate having.

    4. He lacks stellar charisma. As such, he is required to fall in line with the base. The base holds positions that distance Romney from the center. As he lacks the raw charisma to lead them, instead he has to follow them. This makes EVERY position Romney tries to hold dangerous and is why he has rejected specificity.

    Whether he is specifically weak or not, I’m not sure: he’s 6’2″ (1″ taller than Obama) and has presidential hair. He’s clearly smart–and I suspect he’s on the balance a nice guy. However his positioning as a candidate–the sum-total–incredibly weak.

  5. Matt Jarvis September 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm #

    What if campaign saturation and political polarization in 2012 are such that Romney could both be a terrible candidate AND that not have much of any effect on his vote share?
    Between networks (both broadcast and party) supporting their guys, seemingly limitless piles of ads (which are produced under less time pressure and by experts), and polarization to the point where a lot of people have made up their minds months ago, I could see a case that a stellar politician would be running no more than 1 point better than Romney.

    • John Sides September 21, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

      Matt: Quite possible. If so, then this discussion — including my post — is beside the point. Alas, with only a few post-war elections run under conditions of saturation and polarization, it’s tough to know for sure.

      • Matt Jarvis September 21, 2012 at 3:58 pm #

        Or, maybe the trick is to get some kind of exogenous measure of candidate quality?
        The little trick in congressional elections is to use things that are really kinda proxies of quality. Won before is really a proxy, as are things like wealth and fame.
        Of course, most of those point to quality for Romney, so maybe we actually need a way of evaluating candidate quality distinct from our own biases. Good luck with that.

  6. Total September 21, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    The only way to answer the question in the title of this post is to ask a second question: “Compared to what?”

    Compared to someone who doesn’t repeatedly make moronic missteps of all sorts. And, really, if the fundamentals (the economy, incumbency) are mostly responsible for electoral outcomes, what on earth do those outcomes tell you about the quality of the candidates? Parsing vanishingly small differences in actual vs. expected margin is hardly conclusive.

    • John Sides September 21, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Total: Who said it’s conclusive? The point is to try to find baselines so that the possible effects of candidate quality become more evident. Otherwise, we’re left expressing opinions like “moronic missteps” and assuming that (a) somehow other candidates in the same position wouldn’t make similar missteps and (b) those missteps matter.

      • Nick Benjamin September 21, 2012 at 8:30 pm #


        You’re assuming correct steps exist. This is debatable.

        Obama is popular. The economy is bad, but it’s improving. The GOP is united, so potato would get 45%, but that unity means it can’t adopt non-GOP positions on any issue; which means that roughly 50% of the country has at least one issue they absolutely hate in the GOP Platform. Romney can’t really announce he’s for immigration reform or he’ll lose. He can’t abandon the language of the 47% he just got in trouble for using.

        His only path to victory is continued appeasement of people who think it’s reasonable to write off 47% of the country due to not paying income taxes, and hope their turnout is massive.

  7. Dave September 21, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    “But I don’t think we can say with confidence that Romney is significantly worse than a generic GOP candidate.”

    I think we can, I don’t think we necessarily need to compare him to any other candidate to do so. Romney has simply been a surprisingly bad politician and campaigner. The last four weeks have been disastrous for his campaign in terms of political competence and opportunity cost. Even before the conventions, there was a long period of time where the polls were stable, with Romney seemingly unable to land a punch on Obama.

    Especially after the “etch-a-sketch” comment, everyone expected Romney to pivot to the center in the general and he hasn’t. Assuming he could do so and keep his base, he would be in much better shape than he is. However, I don’t think any of that would cure the fact that his campaign has been remarkably poorly run.

    • Nick Benjamin September 21, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

      Why do you think he’d keep his base?

      These are the people who took one look at a guy drummed out of the army for torturing an innocent man, and said “Geez, he’ll make an excellent Congressmen.” They continue to give said man a soapbox at every opportunity despite frequent embarrassing angry outbursts, apparently because they hired him specifically to make said outbursts.

      These are not people who understand they’re 45% of the population and falling. Any Romney waffling will be met with screams of outrage, which will reduce Romney’s poll numbers and eat up News Cycles Romney needs to bring those poll numbers back up. Any waffling early on (ie: before the convention) would have encouraged Santorum to start a floor fight, which Mitt would have lost.

  8. LFC September 21, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    Romney can’t possibly believe the nonsense he’s currently spouting about ‘redistribution’. “Obama wants to take from some and give to others. Redistribution – reallocation — it’s been tried elsewhere and hasn’t worked.” This is a paraphrase of a line in a recent Romney speech that I heard excerpted on the NewsHour. Since it’s nonsense on every level, the only way to even have a chance of bringing it off is to say it as if you believe it. And Romney is having trouble doing that. He’s smart enough to realize it’s nonsense, which perhaps makes it difficult for him to say it convincingly. Plus he’s not a good actor, as someone mentioned above. Reagan, by contrast, was a professional actor who spouted nonsense as if he believed it, which he might well have done, since Reagan was hardly a towering intellect.

  9. LFC September 21, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

    P.s. It’s nonsense b.c virtually all govts are continually engaged in redistribution of one sort or another.

  10. Andrew September 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    I view him as a bad campaigner more than a bad candidate. I think this was a case of the Republicans having to pick someone to run (which is how I viewed Kerry in 2004 for the Dems), and not really having any clear cut candidate who both wanted to be president and could run and win a national campaign against Obama, who seems like a gifted campaigner. Maybe it goes back to the likability factor, I don’t know. Romney is a guy who has only won one out of three elections (and probably will be one for four) and he just doesn’t seem like he knows how to campaign without coming off as elitist, which I can’t imagine helps with undecided blue collar workers in the midwest. Just look at how he basically reverse engineered his tax return to cover for his 13% remark. Who does that and thinks its a smart move?