Mitt Romney, the Unloved Frontrunner


Mitt Romney snagged another win in the GOP primary last night, picking up at least 41 of the 54 electoral votes in Illinois. His campaign continues to sell a message of electability, arguing that Romney is the primary contender with the best shot at beating President Obama in the general election.

Relatively speaking, that may be true enough: Romney's chief rival in the polls is Rick Santorum, who seems unlikely to have any serious chance of a victory against Obama in November.And at this point, it's a near certainty that Romney will be the GOP nominee. He'll grind out a primary victory one electoral vote at a time. 

But it remains hard to accept a strong version of the general election electability argument given Romney's long, slow slog toward probable primary victory. Even with recent wins, Romney still won't clinch the nomination for at least another two months, according to The New York Times:

Mr. Romney came here hoping to provide a convincing enough victory to be able to accelerate his move toward directly confronting the president, leaving the intricacies of the delegate fight to his campaign advisers. Yet unless his Republican rivals decide to step aside, Mr. Romney will not be able to move beyond the primary campaign for at least two more months.

Indeed, Romney is a remarkably weak frontrunner. As Newsweek's Andrew Romano noted recently, the former Massachusetts governor is on track to become the least liked major party presidential nominee on the books: 

[Romney] currently boasts the worst primary-season favorable-unfavorable split of any major-party nominee of the last 36 years (at least). There have been roughly 20 polls released in the last two months; only one gives him a positive favorable rating. The rest of the surveys show Romney's unfavorables outstripping his favorables, often by as many as 20 percentage points. On five occasions, his unfavorable rating has topped 50 percent; his favorable rating has fallen into the 20s five times as well. As of March 12, when the last of these polls was released, Romney was averaging 49.6 percent unfavorable to 37.6 percent favorable—a gap of 11.7 points.

The depth and duration of Romney's favorability dip is unprecedented, even during a heated primary battle. More often than not, the eventual winner enjoys positive favorable ratings the March-April before the election. Carter was at 74 percent favorable on March 27, 1976; Reagan was at 41 percent favorable to 34 percent unfavorable on April 18, 1980; George W. Bush was at 63 percent favorable to 32 percent unfavorable on March 10, 2000 (a split that was unchanged a month-and-a-half later); and over the month of March 2008, Obama's favorable rating outstripped his unfavorable rating by an average of 19 percentage points.

Romney isn't only having trouble selling the base on his candidacy. He's also having trouble generating enthusiasm from already elected GOP legislators and other party leaders, reports Politico:

On Thursday morning, Romney's biggest supporters on Capitol Hill are supposed to come out with their best donors to help the GOP front-runner deepen his cash base. But the RSVP list is looking thin.

Even though the fundraiser is expected to raise $400,000, the figure organizers say is the goal, only 27 of the nearly 80 lawmakers that endorsed Romney had signed on to raise money just two weeks ahead of the event, according a document obtained by POLITICO.

The response reflects an uncomfortable reality for Romney: some Republicans are willing to pony up cash to help him beat President Barack Obama, but that doesn't mean he's widely loved.

One of Romney's biggest problems has always been that it's difficult to imagine many Republicans picking him as their first choice for the nomination. Even many those who are most supportive of him would probably have preferred one of the white knight candidates who did not run. As a result, Romney was always destined to be a second-best pick, a backup plan when nothing else will work. Right now, the Republican party is letting out a long, frustrated sigh as it prepares to settle for the candidate it has rather than a candidate it wants.