It’s almost banal to say at this point, but Mitt Romney is not a strong candidate. His past ideological heterodoxy makes him a poor fit for the contemporary GOP, his constant attempts to position himself with the right makes him seem dishonest to ordinary Americans, and his chief personal characteristic—stiff awkwardness—puts him at a disadvantage against a president known for his likeability.
But as Kevin Drum reminds us, he was the best possible choice in a Republican presidential field that included luminaries like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and former pizza magnate Herman Cain:
Mitt Romney was pretty unanimously considered the strongest candidate in the Republican field—by a large margin. He was, without much question, the most electable of the primary bunch and the toughest opponent for Barack Obama. He was disciplined, well-funded, and had a moderate background that appealed to independents. He was, in short, the very best the Republicans had to offer in the year 2012.
This was not a fantasy, either. It was an accurate assessment. Romney was the best they had. The very best. Let that sink in for a bit.
This raises a question. Why was the GOP field so weak? It’s not that there weren’t strong potential candidates. Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell stand out—even given the former’s nationally televised stumble in 2009—as do Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee. You could also say the same for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who despite his inexperience, was widely considered a presidential contender.
Who is to blame for the weak Republican line-up? Barack Obama.
Even with political foibles and a poor economy, Obama was decently positioned for reelection, and in a world where the incumbent is always likely to hold on to the White House, why would you risk your career to unseat him? FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver made a version of this point in a tweet this morning:
Is Romney a "bad" candidate? Depends on what the control group is. A lot of the incumbency advantage is in drawing mediocre opponents.
— Nate Silver (@fivethirtyeight) September 21, 2012
Countless hours and hundreds of millions of dollars go into a presidential campaign. Unless they have a strong reputation in the party, a losing candidate will face scorn for the rest of their political career—Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and John McCain are diminished figures, even if they ran solid, competent campaigns. If you’re a good candidate, and that’s a likely possibility, why would you run?
This self-selection process leaves the field open for candidates who may have floundered against tougher opponents. Mitt Romney, it seems, is one of those candidates. In 2008, he fought two strong politicians for the Republican nomination—McCain and Huckabee—and lost. In 2012, as the big fish in a small pond, he triumphed over a host of mediocrities. But as preparation for the ocean that is presidential politics, this wasn’t good enough.