By David A. Hopkins, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Boston College
If you’re a strong believer in the idea that presidential nominations are determined by the coordination of party elites during the invisible primary period, with the choice of “the Party” merely ratified by the voters once the actual state primaries and caucuses begin, then Mitt Romney’s announcement on Friday that he will not seek the 2016 Republican nomination, after a month-long period in which Romney was very obviously measuring support for another bid for the presidency, should be interpreted in the following manner: Romney did in fact run for president in 2016–and he lost badly. His publicly-revealed decision not to embark upon another “presidential campaign” occurred after he in fact actively ran another campaign, dropping out of the race after discovering that he stood almost no chance of winning the nomination, just as he would have if he had placed seventh in the Iowa caucus a year from now.
While I agree that (1) candidates seek elite support because it helps them win votes, and (2) Romney decided to remove himself from consideration after concluding that he wouldn’t have as much of that support as he wanted, I still believe that it’s useful to continue drawing a distinction between the testing-the-waters phase and the active-campaign phase of the nomination process. In Romney’s case, there’s plenty of reason to believe that he would judge his chances of winning the nomination in 2016 as significantly greater than zero. Putting aside the fact that most politicians are more likely to overstate than understate their own appeal, Romney would have some evidence on his side for this view. His standing in the national polls is very strong (often placing first by a wide margin in surveys testing the Republican presidential field); he has plenty of money and access to much more; he has a natural advantage in the influential New Hampshire primary; and he already proved the ability to win the nomination in 2012. According to the Washington Post, Romney advisors had collected polling data showing that he indeed retained “broad and deep” support among Republican primary voters, suggesting that he indeed viewed his chances as far from remote. However, whatever probability of success Romney thinks he would have had must be weighed against the cost of failure—and for Romney, more than most potential candidates, that cost would have been high. To lose a third presidential campaign would be something of a humiliation, and to lose in the primaries after having won them last time around would be especially so. If it’s an honor just to be nominated…well, he’s already had that honor.
So even if Romney thought he had at least a legitimate shot to win, once it became clear to him that most party elites were not spontaneously exploding with joy about the prospects of another campaign, that he would have to really fight hard to hold off Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, and that his chances of victory, even if well above zero, were probably below 50%, the idea of slogging it out on the campaign trail once again probably lost most of its appeal. Whereas another candidate, differently situated, might take similar odds as sufficiently encouraging to jump in the race. Certainly Barack Obama must have concluded that he would likely lose to Hillary Clinton in 2008, but the cost of running anyway and hoping for some lucky breaks (which, in the end, he got) was much lower for a young, first-time candidate taking on the party favorite than it would be for Romney today. Other candidates take the plunge in other years—and no doubt many will in 2016 as well—despite what they themselves must view, and certainly other party elites with whom they converse view, as fairly long odds of success. Once a candidate formally joins the race, however, the calculation changes. If you’re already openly running, there’s usually no reason not to keep going until your chances of winning truly dwindle to effectively zero. After all, you’ve already taken the step of publicly presenting yourself to the electorate for their approval, so there’s no reason not to try to collect on that risk until it’s no longer possible to do so. By bowing out gracefully before he officially jumped in, Romney manages to avoid the danger of being openly rejected by the voters who embraced him in 2012, in exchange for trading his presidential ambitions for the role of an elder statesman in the GOP.