Mitt Romney may be leading in the polls, but his status as the GOP “frontrunner” is fragile at best.
For all the talk of Romney’s “did-what-he-had-to-do” performance in the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, it’s widely accepted that the former Massachusetts governor is an uninspired choice for the GOP nomination. Of course, he’s saddled with a state health care reform plan that still sharply divides conservatives. But more than anything else, it’s Romney’s wooden presence and seeming lack of imagination or vision that makes him vulnerable.
Historically, Republicans have nominated the runner-up from the previous election cycle, and Romney was the runner-up in 2008. But his second-place finish was exceedingly narrow — and in the end, closely contested. Once John McCain beat him in New Hampshire and South Carolina — after Mike Huckabee had upstaged him in Iowa, despite Romney’s enormous investment in the Hawkeye State — Mitt was already a beaten man. Huckabee collected eight primary wins, 20% of the primary vote, and finished almost in a dead heat with Romney.
Many observers also forget that Rudy Giuliani was far and away the GOP frontrunner until he unwisely chose to skip the early primaries and cede his huge polling advantage. If Giuliani had run a better campaign and Huckabee had won a few more votes, Romney would have finished fourth.
Compare that to McCain’s commanding second-place finish in 2000, when he beat George W. Bush in New Hampshire and only a concerted effort by the Bush team, which included a horrible smear campaign against McCain in South Carolina, kept the Arizona senator from claiming the nomination himself. Romney, who failed to win any of the critical early primaries in 2008 (except for Michigan, the state his father once governed), never came close to matching McCain’s 2000 performance, which is what rightly made the Arizona senator the “heir apparent” in the last campaign cycle.
But forget about history: just look at Romney’s numbers now. Sure, the latest polls show him pulling in roughly 25% of GOP voters and he’s the only GOP candidate currently leading Obama in a hypothetical head-to-head contest. But most of Romney’s support is exceedingly soft. For example, according to a USA Today poll, only 30% of his supporters in New Hampshire say they’re firmly committed to him. And 40% of GOP voters nationally say they would like to see another candidate run. If that’s frontrunner status, it’s a slender reed, indeed.
And consider some other recent surveys, including a CNN poll released just last weekend that’s been largely ignored in the mainstream media. The poll, which surveyed a cross-section of the electorate (including Republicans, Democrats and independents), found that Giuliani has the highest approval rating of any likely GOP candidate (55%), with Romney far behind at 39%. And Giuliani’s net favorability ratio (55% – 25%) comes in at a whopping 30%, compared to just 10% (39%-29%) for Romney.
And if you drill down further into the poll, there’s more good news for Giuliani — and ambiguous news for Romney. While both men poll well with conservatives, Giuliani scores much higher than Romney with voters when asked to rank who they find is the most decisive leader, best embodies conservative values, and is the one they agree with the most. And yet, Giuliani, alone among the potential GOP candidates, does well with self-described Democrats and with non-white voters. Giuliani also has a 34% net favorability rating with independents, compared to just 12% for Romney.
According to another CNN poll, Giuliani is the candidate that GOP voters most want to join the race. And it turns out that for all the newfound support that Romney enjoys, it’s largely due to his recent announcement that he’s running. The same is true of Sarah Palin, whose support rose to 20%, second only to Romney, after she launched her national bus tour. Giuliani, who led Romney and Palin in a CNN poll two weeks ago when news of his possible candidacy resurfaced, still ranks high with GOP voters. Should he jump into the race, as many observers now expect, his poll numbers are likely to rise sharply once again.
Why should Republicans vote for Romney? Assuming that no other credible candidates join the race and he becomes the nominee, they should, of course. One poll found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. voters think that Romney could beat Obama in 2012. That doesn’t mean they’d vote for Romney over Obama themselves — just that they think lots of other voters might. That’s a powerful perception, much like the perception that Romney is the GOP frontrunner.
But that perception is likely to be tested in the coming weeks as one Republican after another throws his hat into the ring — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman next week, Giuliani perhaps the following, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and perhaps South Dakota Senator John Thune soon thereafter. There’s a reason that so many GOP donors — and influential national and state political operatives — are refusing to commit to any candidate yet.
As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Not only is this race not over, it’s just getting underway.
Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.