2.07.2008

Once favored to win the GOP nod, Mitt Romney acknowledges reality and drops out

Mitt Romney announced today he was suspending his presidential campaign, acknowledging John McCain's seemingly insurmountable lead in delegates. He did so in front of supporters who had not been warned of Romney's announcement, and many of them were taken aback. Many "no!"s were heard in the crowd, as well as a "Why?" and a "We love you Mitt!"

In his speech, Romney made sure to praise McCain's stance on Iraq. He explained he was retiring now because he wanted the GOP to be able to unify versus the threat of a Democratic White House. And in a grandiose statement, Romney presented his decision as a crucial contribution to the War on Terror:

If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win... And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.

Romney's decline was a much more surprising development in this campaign season than Thompson's or Giuliani's. Neither of those two candidates really took off in the states they had to do well in, and Rudy's late-state strategy was bound to cause trouble. But Romney's strategy was good as it could be -- at least on paper. He targeted Iowa and New Hampshire, and stormed to massive leads in both states by the spring. He kept everyone way behind in both of the first voting states until mid-November. And once Michigan -- a good state for Romney -- creeped in to number 3, many people -- starting with myself -- saw the former Massachusetts Governor as the overwhelming favorite to win the nod.

I wrote in my November rankings of the GOP race, "Romney is the most likely nominee, though his position is more precarious than it was just a few weeks ago... But his campaign is running into trouble in the state that he seemed the strongest in -- Iowa." Indeed, Mike Huckabee's sudden surge in Iowa took Romney by surprise and forced him to defend his lead there. That gave an opening to McCain to force Romney's hand in New Hampshire. By Christmas, I had downgraded Romney to number 2 in my GOP rankings (behind McCain) with this preface: "How quickly have things degenarated for the Romney campaign. At Thanksgiving, his Iowa and New Hampshire leads seemed unsurmountable; and then..."

The rest, of course, is history. Romney went negative after Huckabee, and so did the rest of the field and Huckabee shot himself in the foot by committing mistake after mistake in the run-up to the caucuses. But he triumphed there. Romney did not collapse in New Hampshire after that, but he did not have any buzz to recover against McCain, as he ended up losing both states he was so sure he was going to win. He made a last-stand in Michigan, and won decisively, but that proved insufficient as Huckabee did not do his part (at all) in South Carolina, letting McCain get too much momentum and start coasting to the nomination.

Romney's disastrous Super Tuesday -- due as much to the rules of delegate allocation than to his actual hard numbers -- made it impossible for him to come back. He had to win Missouri and Georgia and keep California close, and he did none of these things. His victories in the caucus states did not help him, and he never got enough of a bounce out of Michigan. The conservative establishment had started to rally around him in the week before Super Tuesday, but even that did him no good as Mike Huckabee emerged as the conservative alternative to McCain on Tuesday, with Mitt Romney lagging behind in most key contests. To continue contesting the nomination, Mitt Romney would have to continue massively self-funding his campaign, and the odds were probably now too low for him to be comfortable with doing that.

Throughout the campaign, Mitt Romney had to fight the hatred that he inspired among his rival candidates, who often seemed much more determined to beat him rather than win the nomination themselves. (Read my analysis of this dynamic here). In debates, Romney often was the candidate all others attacked non-stop and often gratuitously, especially at the January 5th ABC debate. Another factor that probably played a big role was Romney's religion. While he tried his best to get his Mormonism off the table, the social conservative base quickly turned to a new figure as soon as they could and Huckabee himself fed the mill with comments disparaging of Mormonism.

Romney clearly wants to run again. He prepared himself for this presidential run for years; he was gearing up for it since his first days as Massachusetts Governor as he started positioning himself for this candidacy. Today's announcement, praising McCain and seeking to speak with a unifying voice, was his first step in a 2012 presidential run.

More importantly, Romney refused to truly attack McCain before Florida and before Super Tuesday. Sure, they had a few testy exchanges, and a few robocalls were exchanged. But Romney's hope was to prove to conservatives that McCain was not acceptable, and he never did go very far in making that argument. What better proof that Romney was already looking ahead to his next run and seeking to keep a positive image in the party?

Going forward, does this change the dynamics of the GOP race? This opens up a big reservoir of votes, mostly conservative, that Huckabee can exploit. In what has now boiled down to a two-man race (though not the two we were expecting in October), the conservative vote could coalesce around the only anti-McCain option, starting next Tuesday in Virginia, a Southern state in which Huckabee could run strong. Two (very) reassuring thoughts for McCain, however, is that many conservative activists who distrust him profoundly distrust Huckabee more. Second, he has a huge delegate lead and many of the states that are voting are proportional, which makes it that much harder for Huckabee to get anywhere close to McCain.

9 Comments:

  • And then they booed McCain. I wonder how many of those who booed McCain would vote for Ron Paul.

    This will be an interesting race.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 07 February, 2008 17:00  

  • No, C.S., you're just wrong, and I can't imagine how you read it that way. Romney's supporters booed McCain after Romney stressed their differences, and BEFORE he said he was going to drop out. The boos after the announcement, as I'm reading the article, seemed to be directed at the statement of withdrawal, and were probably a product of dismay. Maybe you should go back and re-read Ambinder's piece.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 07 February, 2008 17:42  

  • "No, C.S., you're just wrong, and I can't imagine how you read it that way."

    Read what? I saw the damn clip...

    http://www.crooksandliars.com/2008/02/07/john-mccain-was-booed-at-cpac/

    They booed him.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 07 February, 2008 18:40  

  • There may (hopefully) be just enough angst in the Repub hard-right to prop up Huck as the anti-McCain, and to forestall McCain's march toward the nomination, tho I doubt it will make much difference in the end. Perhaps Romney knew Huck wasn't going anywhere, and the best hope for him was to bow out gracefully, and hope somehow for a brokered convention.

    By Anonymous Lady Luck, At 07 February, 2008 18:43  

  • I concur with C.S.

    What I was laughing about was the self-righteousness of Romney. He's such a stiff. Truthfully, Romney has never LED as a conservative. But even that is not the issue. Romney comes off void of leadership. McCain, on the other hand, appeals to this moderate Democrat. I like the fact that he's decent to everyone, not just the GOP. May all the conservative talk show hosts go to hell with their useless rhetoric.

    By Anonymous Southern Slav, At 07 February, 2008 18:52  

  • The right-wing talking heads are feigning their dis-approval with McCain in order to sway moderates to support him. Don't be fooled, he's their pawn. They know damn well that the entire country is lined up against social conservatives and they're putting distance between themselves to make McCain more palatable to the nation. Liberty University is backing McCain if he becomes the nominee. Let him endorse troop withdrawal and abortion before trusting that he's really a moderate.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 07 February, 2008 20:48  

  • Funny enough, I saw the clip too. All 21 minutes of the speech, in fact. Romney's supporters booed McCain BEFORE Romney announced he was dropping out of the race. As I said before.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 07 February, 2008 20:51  

  • "Funny enough, I saw the clip too. All 21 minutes of the speech, in fact. Romney's supporters booed McCain BEFORE Romney announced he was dropping out of the race. As I said before."

    Are you sure you saw the same clip? They booed McCain WHILE HE WAS TALKING. Not after Romney stressed their differences but before he said he was withdrawing, which is what you said before.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 07 February, 2008 22:31  

  • Ah, I see. I misinterpreted you. Since Taniel's post was about Romney's withdrawal, that was the frame of reference in which I read your remark. When you said "And then they booed McCain," I thought you were talking about the small chorus of boos immediately after Romney MENTIONED McCAIN'S NAME. When I objected to your language, I did so based on Ambinder's column and the clip I watched, which clearly showed that any booing of McCain DURING ROMNEY'S SPEECH came before Romney withdrew. I have not yet had a chance to watch the McCain clip, so I'll take your word as to their behavior. Sorry for the misinterpretation, and I hope you can see why I objected so vehemently to something that must have seemed patently obvious to you.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 07 February, 2008 23:08  

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