The near-certainty that Mitt Romney will be defeated by Barack Obama in November is both intuitive and numerical.
Following his important if unspectacular victories in six out of 10 state primaries on Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney is now on a slow but secure track to be the Republican Party’s nominee for president of the United States.
There is no evidence that Romney can unseat President Obama in November. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Obama beating Romney handily in a one-to-one contest, with Obama drawing 50 percent support to Romney’s 44 percent.
Much more important than opinion polling, however, is the real polling that has taken place since the Iowa caucus. These elections provide a true account of how many people are actually turning out to vote for Romney. So far, they indicate that Romney is failing to generate substantially more support than he did during his losing campaign in 2008. And the greater cause of nominating a Republican challenger to Obama is generating measurably less support than it did four years ago.
Put simply: About the same number of people are voting for Mitt Romney as voted for him in 2008, when he didn’t even win the Republican nomination, let alone the general election. This is not true in every state. There are small states such as Vermont and largish ones such as Virginia and Ohio where Romney has more than doubled his 2008 performance. But in those cases, Romney is still pulling fewer votes than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got in the 2008 primaries. In the case of South Carolina, where he pulled a vote count that was both higher than his 2008 take and higher than McCain’s 2008 haul, Romney still didn’t win the state. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did.
The raw numbers are even more dire at the level of the overall Republican field. So far, 7,881,788 people in 22 states have pulled the lever for any Republican primary hopeful. In 2008, those same 22 states delivered at least 8,401,502 votes for Republicans. (And probably many more: Popular-vote counts for 2008 were missing for Maine and Wyoming, and I threw out the 2008 Washington state number, which was improbably larger than 2012. I used Real Clear Politics numbers for 2008 and 2012.)
From a libertarian it will sound like special pleading to say that Ron Paul is the only GOP candidate who appears able to motivate people. But while his growth rate is impressive, Paul’s total numbers remain humble. If enthusiasm were Olympic medals, Paul would have the gold, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would take silver, Gingrich would get the bronze, and Romney would be one of those human interest novelty stories wherein Tonga or someplace fields a mouse-that-roared winter biathlete. Together, the four remaining candidates do not signal that the Republicans can bring out enough voters even to equal the GOP’s losing 2008 performance.
Fortunately for Romney (possibly) and the nation (definitely), a presidential election is not a popularity contest. There are whole states like Florida and Ohio and Illinois, where the vote has become an afterthought to the real drama of the ballot disposal. I have been voting in California for 15 years and I don’t think those machines are plugged into anything.
But to believe that a low-turnout election will favor the Republican is to ignore the Democrats’ own skill with delegate math. California Democrats have perfected the art of voter suppression to something approaching science, and they pay close attention to the scheduling of vacant-seat votes and explosive ballot initiatives during off-year elections held in June or March and ignored by almost everybody. According to Casey Peters, a vice president at Californians for Electoral Reform, the gap between how voters vote and state seats get assigned widened from 9.5 percent in 2002 to more than 20 percent in 2010.
Peters, using numbers from the California secretary of state’s office, shows that in 2010 Republicans won 44 percent of the votes, yet only 35 percent of the state Assembly seats. Democrats in that year won 65 percent of the Assembly seats while turning out only 54 percent of the vote. Given the big gains made by Democrats in the most recent redistricting, that gap will probably widen this year. Would it make sense for other political machines around the country to watch and copy the California model? “Undoubtedly,” Peters says.
This is where the intuitive part comes in. I have two gut reasons to believe Romney can’t beat Obama. First: I have met both men.
Second: I see plenty of evidence that Obama is getting his message out to his troops much more efficiently than Romney is. It started with a Wells Fargo phone rep almost two years ago, who called to let me know I was “eligible for refinancing through the Making Home Affordable program of the Obama Administration's 2009 Recovery Act.” When I asked why I had been singled out for the honor, this Wells Fargo employee replied, “If we can get you a loan with a lower interest rate that will stimulate spending in the economy.”
It’s maybe not surprising that Wells Fargo would acknowledge its debt to the government by distributing pro-administration talking points to employees. But how do you explain the Occupy L.A. activist who last fall described to me how her father had to struggle to get refinancing (which he had obviously earned because the bank “was still trying to charge him the same even though the house wasn’t worth that much anymore”), and how the dad and the local church and the bank worked out some principal reduction which was only possible thanks to “a law that the Democrats passed and Obama signed”?
Republicans ignore the discipline of the Democrats’ messaging and organizing to their own ruin. From the union hall to the para-transit bus pool to the senior citizens pavilion to the rec center, the ascendant message is of Obama’s wise stewardship of the economy, of the frustratingly slow pace (induced by obstructionist Republicans) of the Obama recovery, and whenever possible of how the speaker personally received some benefit—no matter how meager or humiliating—thanks to the president’s leadership.
You may say this isn’t enough, that there are too few community organizers and reverends and union enforcers and public school teachers to make a difference. I say these are the people who have the very real skill that Mitt Romney very clearly lacks: the ability to turn out the quick and the dead on election day. And it is precisely during a no-hope, low-turnout election that those skills are most valuable.
Is it puzzling that a president who has overseen years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment, soaring energy costs, unprecedented waste, the decay of the real estate market, and an assault on the civil liberties of both Americans and non-Americans that goes beyond even the depredations of George W. Bush looks likely to get re-elected?
Not really. The idea that elections reflect the national mood is more myth than reality. At this time in 2004 few would have called Bush an inspiration or a deliverer of bounty. Unemployment wasn’t as bad as it is now, but it was an uncomfortable 6 percent. The last leg of a decades-long real-estate hyperinflation was just starting to ravage the economy. The pacification of Iraq was still in its pre-surge shambles. The same bellyaching about stagnant middle-class wages you hear all over the media today you heard back then.
Then the Democrats made the smart move and nominated the Bay State’s Mitt Kerry. Now the Republicans will also play it safe with the Bay State’s John Romney. I may not have those names exactly right, but you can see where this is heading.
Tim Cavanaugh is managing editor of Reason.com.