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.
“If his negatives are 35 percent and his positives aren’t at least 5 percent higher,” Atwater believed, “it’s politically fatal1.”
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.
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, Romney lost 27 of 33 counties
to Newt Gingrich.) In Texas, a February polls showed Santorum with a 29-point lead
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.
This race should be over
The upward political mobility of a presumed nominee should be visible 22 races into a primary.
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
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 sustained 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 theRealClearPolitics 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.
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 hard-core religious right. His strengths in the primary would be his demise in the general election. But a primary opponent’s shortcomings don’t make Romney a general election contender.
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 full majority of the vote.