Can Mitt Romney Win Republican Nomination?

New polling shows that Mitt Romney is well behind the Fox News candidates for 2012.

Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen reports that, “Mitt Romney’s been looking weaker and weaker in our 2012 Presidential polling over the last couple months and it’s pretty easy to identify the reason why: he has a major problem with conservatives and there’s no evidence it’s getting any better.”

Jensen provides three interesting snapshots to illustrate his point.  First, favorability amongst self-identified conservatives:

Rather bleak for Romney.  He only gets very strong numbers in Michigan, where he grew up and his dad was governor.  And, even there, he actually trails Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.  Meanwhile, Palin is very strong across the board with Huckabee her biggest challenger among conservatives.  (It’s worth noting, too, that Newt Gingrich isn’t exactly off the charts popular, either.)

Next, conservatives who named a candidate their top choice as 2012 presidential nominee:

Again, it’s only Michigan where he’s the top choice.  And he’s within the margin of error with Huckabee and Palin.

Finally, the same question for all Republicans in those states:

Not much better:  Romney’s still third or fourth in every state.

These numbers strike me as plausible in terms of the starting position for each of those four candidates.  But I’m not sure how predictive they are of the overall race.    Here are some more numbers:

Those are the results of the 2008 Michigan Republican primary.  Note that, against a field of nine candidates — not just four — Romney got nearly 39% of the vote.   Surely, his popularity in Michigan hasn’t plummeted so far that he’s lost nearly half of that?  And Huckabee came in third, with a mere 16%.   Suddenly, he’s tied with favorite son Romney?

And, no, strategic voting doesn’t account for the results. The Michigan primary was on January 15, right after the Iowa and New Hampshire contests.  Huckabee had won Iowa and McCain New Hampshire.  If anything, the strategic vote would have been for one of those two winners, setting him up as the heavy favorite going into Nevada and South Carolina.

My strong guess is that what the current numbers show is that nobody has been thinking much about Mitt Romney over the last couple of years.  Meanwhile, Palin, Huckabee, and Gingrich have been plastered all over Fox News boosting their Q Factor.

Now, of course, this actually matters.  The fact is that those candidates have increased their name recognition and status while Romney will have to re-establish his.  And it’s quite likely that the RomneyCare tag will hurt him, bringing something that was a virtual non-issue in 2008 to the fore. But the point is that there will be a campaign and other candidates to contend with. Romney will have to fight off Palin, Huckabee, and whomever else throws their hats into the ring.

My sense is that Palin and Romney are the candidates to beat.  Republicans tend to nominate the candidate whose “turn” it is and both have credible claims to that mantle.  Romney was the runner up in the 2008 primary fight.  (Yes, Huckabee technically amassed a handful more delegates.  But that was only by contesting races long after John McCain was the clear winner; Romney, by contrast, had the good graces to pull out and throw his support to the nominee.)   Palin was the vice presidential nominee.

I’d bet just about anything that Gingrich will not be the 2012 nominee.  He’s simply got far too much personal baggage.  And, while he’s a more palatable alternative among conservative intellectuals than Palin or Huckabee, that’s not exactly the most valuable demo.

Palin, Huckabee, and all the other populist conservatives will have to take one another on to establish themselves as the leader of that group.   Palin has to be the odds-on favorite because of her rock star status, instant name recognition, a presumptive fundraising advantage.  She’s more exciting than Huckabee and more able to turn out a crowd. But Huckabee is a much more polished campaigner, less gaffe prone, and less likely to turn people off.

Unless a Jeb Bush type shows up, Romney will have the mainstream contest to himself.  That, his organization, and discipline, will give him a very good chance of emerging as the winner. And, recall, once it became clear that Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani weren’t serious contenders — apparently, they hadn’t been informed that actually campaigning is necessary, since anointment is seldom the route to the nomination — Romney, not Huckabee, emerged as “the conservative alternative” to McCain.

Without a clear frontrunner and with the party in such disarray, I don’t expect the 2012 contest to be over in February.  Nor do I think it a lead pipe cinch that the four candidates polled here are the only plausible nominees.   But I still think Romney is the likeliest of the bunch to get a shot at Barack Obama.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. narciso says:

    We would have a better gauge to see, if he hadn’t quit at the CPAC meeting that year, and he had
    the money, the endorsement, no legal or ethical encumbrances, who’s to say he won’t do it again. Back in 1996, it was Dole the seasoned legislator as with McCain a dozen years later

  2. James Joyner says:

    He quit at CPAC because it was clear he couldn’t win. And he didn’t want to spend millions of his kids’ inheritance chasing windmills.

  3. BOSMAN says:

    How’s Romney doing with Moderates and Independents?

    Do you think a Republican can be elected with JUST the conservative vote?

    Romney is within the MOE in those polls.
    Whrn it comes to moderates and Independents, he leaves the other Republicans in the dust.

    ADD to that, the head-to-heads with Obama. How is PALIN doing on that front? Not so hot huh?

    Check out Palin’s UNFAVORABLES:

  4. michael reynolds says:

    As a liberal I want to say that we should not attempt to exploit the fact that Mitt Romney is the child of a mixed marriage between android and gecko.

  5. SteelyTom says:

    Romney has a shot only if two (or maybe three) things happen: (1) The economy still stinks, and the ‘Jobless Recovery’ dominates the discourse; and (2)(a) this completely obscures ObamaCare as an issue, or (b) Congress repeals or otherwise disposes of ObamaCare before it can become in issue in the primaries. I suppose one could add that (3) Romney needs to morph into a sincere, passionate, and competent campaigner, but that’s asking too much at this point.

  6. Joe Gurka says:

    Romney gives the G.O.P. their best chance to beat Obama in 2012. There probably has not been a candidate with a skill set so suited to the challenges the country faces right now. He debates very well, is great on telivision,and does well with independents and moderates. I have also found Catholic voters really respond to Romney due to his reputation as a good father and husband.The liberals and Democrats I talk to tell me Mitt is the Republican candidate that scares them most.