Say It Ain’t So, Mitt!

Washington is buzzing with the news that Mitt Romney has resolved to enter the 2016 presidential race. I wrote some time ago that Hillary Clinton is ripe for the plucking, as long as her opponent is a fresh new face. Therefore, I thought, the only plausible Republican candidate who can’t beat Hillary is Jeb Bush, another Bush/Clinton race being the one thing that would drive Republican voters away from the polls. Now that conclusion must be amended. The Democrats have a second path to victory: Mitt Romney could be the Republican nominee.

I like Mitt. I contributed pretty substantially to his 2012 campaign, and I think he would have been an excellent president. But one thing we know for sure is that American voters don’t much want to see Romney in the White House. This is not an experiment that needs to be run twice.

The key variable in contemporary politics is Republican turnout. It was not always thus: when I was growing up, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans–pictured as dutiful, small town good-government types–would turn out reliably, while Democrats–apparently envisioned as drunken Irishmen or something of the sort–were more quixotic, and could be discouraged from voting by a little rain or snow. Low turnout–good for Republicans! Bad weather–good for Republicans! Even high school kids had mastered those rules in the 1960s.

For some reason, today’s political consultant class hasn’t figured out that the old rules no longer apply, and in fact have been reversed. It is Democrats who can be counted on to troop to the polls, come Hell or high water. Why? Because they are motivated by self-interest: they are voting for food stamps, for free cell phones, to make someone else pay for their health care, for government contracts, for regulations that will force consumers to buy their companies’ products, like it or not. And where Democrats are not voting for money, they are whipped into a frenzy by a constant barrage of propaganda telling them that Republicans are evil people who make war on women, minorities and so on. Republicans tend to laugh at these campaigns because they are so stupid, but experience tells us that they work, i.e., they motivate Democrat-leaning voters to go to the polls.

The Republican base, on the other hand, is conservative and does not vote primarily out of either self-interest or delusion, but out of principle. Republican voters, therefore, are less reliable. A large majority of them are conservatives, and will stay home if the Republican party does not nominate candidates who exemplify conservative values. If they aren’t excited, they may not vote.

These are the popular vote totals in recent presidential elections, in thousands:

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For those of us who live in the world of politics and public policy, turnout is hard to understand. I vote in every election, and it seems that pretty much everyone I know does likewise. But many millions of Americans do not vote in every election: they have to be motivated. These days, most of those voters are conservatives, a strong plurality of all Americans.

Note that Ronald Reagan’s popular vote total in 1984 was by far the largest recorded up to that time, and was not exceeded for 20 years. Note how the Democrats’ popular vote totals have grown steadily since that time. Note in particular that Barack Obama garnered the highest-ever popular vote total in 2008. No surprise there, given eight years of Republican rule, an unpopular war, the financial collapse of September 2008, and the prospect of the first African-American president. The remarkable thing, I think, is that despite all of that, nearly 60 million Americans turned out to vote for John McCain, viewed by most as a rather lackluster candidate.

Four years later, Barack Obama was by any rational accounting a failed president. Several political scientists have created models that forecast presidential votes based on economic data. Those models have correctly accounted for every post-war election, and they all said that Obama would not be re-elected, given the lousy economy of 2012. Yet, re-elected he was. His vote total declined by four million, but it was still the second-highest ever recorded, by a wide margin. The mystery of the 2012 election is that the Democrat vote total declined by four million, but the Republican total increased by only one million. Three million voters (more, given our increasing population) went missing, as Romney received fewer votes than George W. Bush got in 2004.

Various analysts have sliced and diced the data, and I think it is clear that a large portion of those three million were evangelicals who stayed home, either due to sheer lack of motivation or out of anti-Mormon bigotry. In many cases, I am afraid it was the latter. In any event, Mitt Romney demonstrated in 2012 that he does not have what it takes to motivate conservative voters to go to the polls, even against the most left-wing president–some say the worst president–in our history.

Why will it be any different in 2016? The opponent will be tired old Hillary Clinton, but the economy will be better and Hillary not only talks a better moderate game than Obama, but comes across as more competent. How many voters will give Romney a second look? Very few, I think. If the Republican Party is determined to lose in 2016, it should nominate Romney. Defeat would be pretty much guaranteed, much as it was in 1956 when the Democrats nominated the already-beaten Adlai Stevenson as a sacrificial lamb.

The Republican Party has a number of strong, young candidates–some of whom are even charismatic!–who, I think, would beat an old, tired, gaffe-prone Hillary next year. Heck, forget charismatic; I think anyone but a retread would be the favorite. But already, the Republican nomination process threatens to go off the rails as precisely what we don’t need–two retreads–are dominating the news.

Mitt, consider this an effort at intervention by a friend: just say no. Please.

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