Much to the delight of Americans everywhere—both Democrat and Republican—the door is firmly closed on a Mitt Romney candidacy for president in 2016. After briefly flirting with a third bid for our nation’s highest office, Governor Romney stated unequivocally at the end of January that he would sit this one out. So, you are probably asking, why am I just now talking about this? Well, it’s simply because (believe it or not) I actually think there may have been one particularly beneficial impact of a Romney candidacy on the outcome of the 2016 Republican primary—namely, he could have kept a certain former governor of Florida from winning.
Before I get too far into the weeds here, I’d like to conduct a quick empirical analysis—something I don’t think I do often enough on this blog. In order to credibly complain about a possible Bush triumph in the 2016 GOP primary, let me first make the case that such an outcome is indeed probable. I’d like to compare Gov. Bush’s current polling numbers amid the (rather crowded) GOP presidential field with those of Gov. Romney at the same point out from 2012. Below is a chart of the results of every poll tracking the support for various potential Republican presidential contenders from March 2010 to March 2011. (Results are courtesy of RealClearPolitics.) Many of these polls included other candidates besides the ones listed, such as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, but I chose to include only the four highest-polling candidates in order to keep the graph from getting too messy.
|Click for a larger image!|
You’ll notice that this is a pretty straightforward graph. Romney’s level of support remains largely static throughout, hovering between 15 and 25 percent after an initial drop-off. He remains consistently ahead of his closest competitor, Newt Gingrich, by a margin of about 5-10 points for the duration of that time. Both Gingrich’s and Romney’s numbers drop off again towards the end, but that is mostly due to the emergence of Rick Santorum as a credible opponent, as well as several other people not included in the graph. As of March 29, 2011 (four years prior to the day I wrote this post), the RealClearPolitics polling average had Romney with 18.3% support, followed by Gingrich with 11.3%, Ron Paul with 7.5%, and Rick Santorum with 2.2%.
Now, let’s see how the situation on March 29, 2011 compares with that of March 29, 2015. Below is a similar graph to the previous one, this time displaying the polling for the 2016 GOP nomination. Again, I only included the top-polling candidates, which is especially necessary this time around considering how outrageously crowded 2016’s field of Republican contenders is. This graph is definitely different: rather than two dominant candidates, this graph has four. What is initially a tight three-way race between Bush, Mike Huckabee, and Rand Paul becomes more of a two-way affair as Paul and Huckabee drop off and Scott Walker rockets skyward. (It appears there is a case to be made for Ben Carson, too, at least for the moment.) As of March 15, 2014 (the latest available data at RealClear), Bush is averaging 16.6%, with Walker at an identical 16.6%, Carson at 10.6%, Huckabee at 10.2%, and Paul at 8.4%.
|Click for a larger image!|
But how different, really, is this situation from the one in 2012? Aside from being much closer to his nearest competitors (be it Paul last year or Walker right now), Bush maintains the same kind of steady support Romney displayed in his race for the nomination. Aside from a few outliers, his numbers hover right around 15% pretty much the whole time. His 16.6% average is numerically very close to Romney’s 18.3%, and that’s with many more contenders in the 2016 field to chip away at his support. On top of that, Bush’s numbers are on a somewhat upward trajectory over the past year, whereas Romney’s numbers actually dropped somewhat between March 2010 and March 2011. Furthermore, this year’s data is showing signs of shaping up much like the 2012 contest—namely, a series of “anti-establishment” candidates rising and falling as the “establishment” pick floats stoically on top of all the commotion. Who’s to say that Scott Walker isn’t this year’s Newt Gingrich? If Bush continues to maintain the steady level of support he has right now, he could easily translate that into an eventual win just as Romney did three years ago. Granted, I’m comparing apples to applesauce here. The fact that there are so many more candidates for the GOP nomination this time around (and such higher-tier ones, too) makes it tricky to directly compare the numbers. But I just can’t help feeling uneasy that the Jeb Bush of 2015 is running less than two points behind the Mitt Romney of 2011.
And that, my friends, is why I kind of wish Mitt Romney had decided to run for president in 2016. As a well-connected, fundraising-savvy, establishment giant, Romney could have siphoned voters, endorsements, and (most importantly) donors from Bush’s campaign. With the establishment split two ways, neither of them would have won the nomination and the nation would have been better for it. Instead, we find ourselves in a situation where a Bush/Clinton matchup in 2016 looks increasingly likely every day, and that is just downright disappointing. Worse, it’s a little bit scary. Even after all that has changed in American politics over the last decade, the fact remains that the old-guard establishment wings of both major parties still have immense power in deciding which of their cronies runs for president. But change, I suppose, only ever comes gradually. What can I say other than Rand Paul 2016?