Romney is not the front-runner; no one is

In two Washington Post articles this morning Mitt Romney is referred to as the front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination. Why? On what basis?

The first article, headlined “Romney has eye on one prize right now: money,” Dan Eggen and T. W. Farnam refer to Romney as “the presumed front-runner.” In a second article on page A4, headlined “Romney to confront his critics in a speech on health care,” Karen Tumulty more cautiously writes that Romney “is seen as a possible front-runner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination?”

Presumed by whom? Seen by whom?

In the realclearpolitics.com average of recent polls Romney gets 16.6% and Mike Huckabee 16.4%. They’re followed by Donald Trump with 12.9%, Sarah Palin with 10.6%, Newt Gingrich with 7.7%, etc. In polls conducted in April and May Romney gets between 11% and 19%. The way I read it he’s a contender, not a front-runner. And not necessarily a strong contender: with greater name recognition than some other potential candidates he's not running far ahead of them.

But wasn’t he the runner-up in the 2008 race for the Republican nomination, and don’t Republicans always nominate the candidate who was the runner-up last time? The answer to both questions is, not necessarily. Romney got more voters than any other candidate except John McCain in the  2008 Republican caucuses and primaries. But it wasn’t a close second: McCain got 42%, Romney got 21% and Mike Huckabee got 20%. And Huckabee actually got quite a lot more delegates (270) than Romney (189). So much for the idea that Romney was the clear runner-up.

What about the tendency of docile, order-obsessed Republicans always voting for the candidate next in line? Well, I suppose the stereotype has some basis in fact. But, as I wrote in my April 26 Examiner column, there are only six cases since something like the current nominating system came into place in the 1970s of the Republicans nominating the next guy in line. And in all of these cases, I would argue, the nominee won because of other much more important factors or the nominee’s win was a very close run thing. Examples:

1976. Yes, incumbent President Gerald Ford beat challenger Ronald Reagan, but by an exceedingly narrow margin. There was nothing inevitable about this.

1980. Gosh, Ronald Reagan was not just the next guy in line: he was the undoubtedly by far the most prominent conservative Republican in the nation and he had twice been elected governor of California, the largest state in the Union, by large margins. On the other hand, he was 69 years old, and he had to demonstrate that he was up to the job. He did and he won.

1988. George H. W. Bush was indeed Reagan’s vice president. But he wasn’t exactly his heir, and he beat Bob Dole in New Hampshire by 14,493 votes. If he hadn’t won that contest, he almost surely wouldn’t have won the nomination.

1996. Bob Dole’s victory was again a close-run thing. If Lamar Alexander had gotten 7,591 more votes in New Hampshire he would have emerged as Buchanan’s chief rival and, since Buchanan was never going to be nominated by the Republican party, almost certainly would have won the nomination.

2000. George W. Bush was the son of a former president and was twice elected governor of the second largest state: you can make a pretty good argument he was the front-runner. But he lost New Hampshire to John McCain by a 49%-30% margin and his 53%-42% win over McCain in South Carolina sure didn’t seem inevitable at the time.

2008. John McCain’s strategy, after his initial strategy of raising vastly more money than any other candidate fizzled out in July 2007, was to keep on keeping on and wait for all the other candidates’ strategies to fail. That’s usually a losing strategy, but somebody else’s strategy succeeds. But in 2008 it worked, helped mightily, as I pointed out in my April 26 column, by the Republican winner-take-all delegate allocation rules then in force.

What’s interesting here is that Mitt Romney’s current strategy, as described by Dan Eggen and T. W. Farnam, looks an awful lot like the McCain strategy of January to July 2007. But Eggen and Farnam don’t point that out. Romney like McCain in 2007 (or like Phil Gramm in 1995 or John Connally in 1979) may be able to raise huge amounts of money but that, as the examples of Gramm and Connally illustrate, doesn’t automatically translate into votes.  

Modest proposal: can we all agree to ban the label “front-runner” from coverage of the race for the 2012 Republican nomination, at least until someone wins enough votes and delegates to demonstrate that he or she really is the front-runner?

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