Saturday, November 26, 2011

Is Mitt Romney Electable?

For quite some time, Mitt Romney has generally been perceived as the most electable candidate in the Republican field. Although there were several potential candidates who were perceived as electable (e.g. Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie), they left the race or chose not to enter. Of the remaining candidates, only Jon Huntsman joins Romney in the "highly electable" category. But since Huntsman is in Romney's shadow in New Hampshire, Romney is essentially in a category all his own.

But is this analysis correct? Or has the conventional wisdom overestimated Romney's electability?

Earlier this month, we considered whether Newt Gingrich is electable. In the match-up polls conducted so far, Gingrich trailed Barack Obama badly. Of all the candidates, Romney has done the best in the match-up polls, and he is the only one to get close to Obama.

The following are all of the Romney vs. Obama match-up polls conducted during November:

Romney vs. Obama
11/22 Romney 38, Obama 44 (-06) -- Rasmussen
11/20 Romney 44, Obama 45 (-01) -- Quinnipiac
11/15 Romney 44, Obama 42 (+02) -- Fox News
11/14 Romney 47, Obama 49 (-02) -- Pew Research
11/13 Romney 51, Obama 47 (+04) -- CNN
11/10 Romney 42, Obama 43 (-01) -- Rasmussen
11/10 Romney 44, Obama 48 (-04) -- McClatchy/Marist
11/09 Romney 43, Obama 49 (-06) -- Politico/GWU
11/05 Romney 43, Obama 49 (-06) -- NBC/WSJ
11/03 Romney 47, Obama 46 (+01) -- ABC/Wash Post
11/03 Romney 44, Obama 43 (+01) -- Reuters/Ipsos
11/02 Romney 41, Obama 42 (-01) -- Rasmussen

While Gingrich had averaged about ten points behind Obama, Romney averages about a point and a half behind Obama. Since the general election will not take place for nearly a year, it's also worth looking at the previous months for more data. Consider the following summary how the match-up polls fared since June of this year, when both Gingrich and Romney were in the race. Romney was polled more frequently than Gingrich and did much better against Obama:

In 18 match-up polls, Gingrich was tied or won in 0 of them (00%). Gingrich pulled within 5 points of Obama in 2 of the polls (11%). In 59 match-up polls, Romney was tied or won in 21 of them (36%). Romney pulled within 5 points of Obama in 48 of the polls (81%).

As a further illustration, consider the polling done in New Hampshire by the University of New Hampshire about a week ago. For the state of New Hampshire only, Romney beat Obama by 3 points. In the same poll, Gingrich lost to Obama by 12 points.

What about the effects of a general election campaign? Were Romney to win the Republican nomination, his approval would improve dramatically. After the primary, the winner always enjoys a "rally around the candidate" effect. Romney would also be able to introduce himself to the American public at large; so far he's only campaigned heavily in New Hampshire. Judging by his performance this time around (which is considerably better than his run four years ago), Romney's numbers would improve further. This would put Romney comfortably ahead of Obama.

Romney would also lose support as a result of negative campaigning against him. Unlike Gingrich, however, most of Romney's "negatives" are already priced in, as voters are familiar with the "flip-flopper" attack against him. What are not priced in yet are the attacks against his tenure at Bain Capital, where Obama will claim Romney fired people; unknown is the effect of Obama's allies playing "the Mormon card."

Where does that leave us? The net effect would still leave Romney ahead. Unlike Gingrich, Romney would have one final trump card to play: Marco Rubio is almost certainly going to be Romney's VP nominee. For reasons which will be explored when the primary is over, Rubio would uniquely boost the numbers of the presidential ticket.

Thus, the conventional wisdom proves to be correct in this case: Romney would be by far the most formidable challenge to Obama in the general election. If Romney wins the nomination, it will be in large measure because voters recognize this fact.