Thursday, March 08, 2012

Lee Atwater: Romney can't win in November 2012

Master political tactician Lee Atwater once said that "anyone who gets more than a 35-percent negative factor can't win an election."

In the 2012 Republican presidential contest, Mitt Romney is that person.

According to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 39 percent of adults in America view Romney very or somewhat negatively, compared to 28 percent who view the former Massachusetts governor very or somewhat positively.

"If his negatives are 35 percent and his positives aren't at least 5 percent higher," Atwater believed, "it's politically fatal."(1)

Far from a polling fluke, the NBC/WSJ survey has remained fairly consistent over the past six months. In fact, the only significant difference between this year's results and the same poll's findings in 2008 is that Romney is disliked more now, as the frontrunner and presumed nominee, than he was in '08 as a third-place finisher in the GOP primary.

In January, 2008, Romney earned a 28 percent positive review from poll respondents -- the exact same positivity rating recorded in this month's poll. His negative responses, however, have jumped 7 percentage points since 2008, from 32 percent to 39 percent.

The question is, will Atwater's axiom hold true? Is Romney's political fate doomed?

What the GOP primaries forecast

The only thing standing between Romney and the 2012 nomination is Rick Santorum. Unfortunately, the only thing that has kept Santorum from securing permanent frontrunner status is Romney's 28-to-1 fundraising advantage.

Santorum has survived Romney's attacks with an authentically grassroots-style campaign -- shaking hands with constituents, sitting down for hours-long chats with meager-sized crowds, and, in Iowa, driving a truck through each of the Hawkeye State's 99 counties.

Romney, in contrast, has done little more than throw money into (mostly negative) advertising.

For a man with a $50-million fundraising advantage over Santorum (per the Jan. 31 disclosure reports), Romney doesn't have much to show for it.

The single most important takeaway from Super Tuesday -- other than the obvious observation that Romney is still very much disliked -- it's that the "presumed nominee," a title now requiring quotation marks, has no Southern Strategy whatsoever. He has lost South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, and he's on track to lose Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, and Alabama -- all of which will be decided this month. (Florida, though technically in "the South," is neither ideologically or demographically "southern," and in the panhandle of Florida, the more conservative, "southern" part of the state, Romney lost 27 of 33 counties to Newt Gingrich.) In Texas, a February poll showed Santorum with a 29-point lead over Romney.

Romney managed to eke out an eight-tenths-of-one-percent victory over Santorum in the must-win Ohio primary on March 6, but considering the paper-thin margin, the four in ten Republicans who expressed reservations about their options, and the "weak field" of Republican candidates, David Frum called the win "deeply, deeply ominous."

Perhaps more ominous, Romney's primary victories have come mostly in states Obama carried with ease in 2008: New Hampshire, where Obama won by 10 percent; Massachusetts (26 percent); Vermont (37 percent); Maine (17 percent); Washington state (17 percent); Nevada (12 percent); and Michigan (16 percent). Obama also won Virginia, by 6 percent; Ohio, by 5 percent; and Florida, by 3 percent.

In other words: Arizona, Idaho and Alaska are the only states Romney has won that Obama lost in '08. Combined, the three states will provide Romney with a whopping 18 electoral college votes out of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

(Though difficult to fathom, it's possible that Arizona, which Obama lost by an 8-percent margin in 2008, could turn blue this November. Republicans have isolated Hispanics with their vehement opposition to the DREAM Act and their state government's discriminatory SB 1070 immigration law. According to the 2010 census, 30 percent of Arizonans are Hispanic. A February 22 poll showed Obama and Romney tied at 47 percent in The Grand Canyon State.)

This race should be over

The upward political mobility of a presumed nominee should be visible 22 races into a primary.

Sen. John McCain hadn't officially secured the Republican presidential nomination after winning Florida on January 29, 2008, but his poll numbers shot through the roof, jumping 16.5 percent after a narrow but powerful 5-percent victory over Mitt Romney in The Sunshine State. A week later he led Mike Huckabee by 25 percentage points.

Two days after the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday races, when Romney won seven states to McCain's nine, Romney dropped out. By the time Mike Huckabee followed suit a month later, McCain was polling at 57 percent nationally.

In 2000, George W. Bush was polling in the mid-60s at the end of January. In February of 1995, when the politically insipid Bob Dole fought for the nomination with the equally bland vice president, Dan Quayle, Dole hovered between 38 and 46 percent from February to April before breaking out for good. "And although Gallup's Republican test elections expanded to contain up to nine candidates, Dole faced no significant competition throughout 1995."

In January 1987, H.W. Bush was in the low 30-percent range, but he too held a 20-percent margin over his primary rival (Dole) "and maintained a roughly 2-to-1 lead over Dole the rest of the year."

Comparatively, it has been a year since Romney announced his presidential exploratory committee, and he has thus far failed either to reach the 40 percentage mark or to open up a poll margin greater than 10 percent. (On the few occasions he has topped 10 percent, the lead hasn't been sustained for longer than a week.) He's trailed Rick Perry, by 12 percent in September; Herman Cain, by 2 percent in November; Newt Gingrich, by 12 percent in December; and most recently Santorum, who has led by as much as 6.6 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of all national polls.

NBC's Chuck Todd et al. wrote recently that: 

Romney's image right now is worse than almost all other recent candidates who went on to win their party's presidential nomination: Obama was 51%/28% and McCain was 47%/27%, per the March 2008 NBC/WSJ poll; Kerry was 42%/30% at this point in '04; George W. Bush was 43%/32% in 2000; and Bob Dole was 35%/39%. The one exception: Bill Clinton (2), in April 1992, was 32%/43%. That means that if Romney becomes the GOP nominee, he has a LONG WAY to go to rehabilitate his image.

And as a recent CNN analysis predicted, Super Tuesday won't change that.

Romney is quick to attack Santorum for not having a national campaign apparatus in place -- or even a national campaign headquarters. He's an evangelical extremist who offends all but the hardcore religious right. His strengths in the primaries would be his demise in the general election. But a primary opponent's shortcomings don't make Romney a general election contender.

Santorum will still be "nipping at Romney's heels" long after Super Tuesday, and even if Romney manages to win enough delegates to secure the nomination (or if he doesn't but Santorum concedes at the Republican convention this August), Obama will be waiting, with a full war chest and a strong favorability rating among both Democrats and independents.

How is Romney going to compete in the general election if he can't separate himself from the pack, can't rally the South, and can only win primary victories in liberal states that are guaranteed to vote Democratic in November? He has higher negatives than any electable presidential nominee in decades, and even his fundraising is drying up. (He already has tapped 40 percent of his campaign donors for the maximum amount they're allowed to contribute.)

How is that guy going to beat a growingly popular incumbent whose re-election campaign is both financially well-oiled and strategically unrivaled?

The answer is, he can't.

Atwater knew the outcome of this election 20 years ago.


1 - Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater, by John Brady, 1997.

2 - Bill Clinton was running against two conservatives in 1992, the GOP establishment candidate George H.W. Bush and the anti-establishment populist Ross Perot. Clinton won the presidency without winning a majority of the vote.

(Cross-posted at Muddy Politics.)

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