Conservative pundits and television personalities across the nation are celebrating former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) decision to stay out of the 2016 presidential race, but it is likely Romney’s decision could cause serious problems for conservative candidates looking to win what is sure to be a hotly contested Republican primary.
Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, has been highly criticized by conservatives since his time as governor, when he implemented health care reform policies in Massachusetts that many conservatives felt gave too much power over the health care marketplace to the state government.
Despite a lack of support from conservatives, Romney was able to capture enough votes from moderate and left-leaning Republicans to beat out more conservative candidates like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in the 2012 Republican primary.
In early January, much to the chagrin of many conservatives in his party, Romney announced to a group of donors he was considering another presidential run, but having sufficiently tested the waters, he announced on Friday that he would not be entering the race.
While the news has pleased a number of influential conservatives, Romney’s exit from the political arena could end up greatly harming conservative candidates in the long-run.
The reason Romney was able to beat out his more conservative opponents in 2012 was not because he was favored by a majority of Republicans; it was because conservatives could not find a single candidate to rally around until it was too late. By the time Santorum was the clear favorite, Romney had all the momentum, political infrastructure, and the money to be the GOP nominee. Santorum never stood a chance.
The Iowa Republican caucus reveals a great deal about Romney’s ability to win. Although Romney received 24.5 percent of the vote, only 0.1 percentage point less than Santorum, who was eventually declared the winner, every other candidate in the race was loved considerably more by conservatives than Romney was. Even Ron Paul, who never really had a chance of capturing the nomination, was able to garner 21 percent of the Iowa caucus.
In other words, Romney was successful — not just in Iowa but in all of the early primaries — because he was the only moderate candidate out there, so moderate supporters, even though they composed a relatively small minority of primary voters, were able to rally around one candidate and devote all of their resources to a single campaign. No other conservative candidate could accomplish this feat, so Romney ended up winning by default.
The 2016 race appears to be developing in a similar manner. Like in 2012, the current field of Republican candidates includes a number of individuals conservatives like, but no one who clearly stands out as the obvious choice. Factions have already started to develop, and there are no signs indicating conservative Republicans will be able to settle their differences and choose a single candidate to support by the time the primaries begin in 2016.
In a recent Fox News poll of registered voters conducted Jan. 25–27, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush leads the pack of potential presidential nominees by 2 percentage points, and fellow moderate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie received only 6 percent of the vote. Combined, Bush and Christie control roughly 21 percent of the Republican vote, which is about the same level of support Romney had in February 2011.
With Romney in the picture, moderates’ support of Bush and Christie would have been split three separate ways, making it impossible for any of three candidates to win the nomination. Even if Bush or Christie drop out of the race to make room for the other, a race that includes Romney and either Bush or Christie would have surely led to disaster for moderates.
But now that Romney is out of the presidential race, a decision to drop out from either Bush or Christie could end conservatives’ hopes to nominate a candidate one of their favorite selections in 2016.
Perhaps right-wing pundits should think a bit more carefully before breaking out the champagne.
Justin Haskins (Jhaskins@heartland.org) is an author, blogger, and the editor of a leading free-market think tank based out of Chicago, IL.