For the past week, it's been all the rage among pundits across the political spectrum. No, not wondering whether First Lady Michelle Obama is indeed an "angry black woman" but rather pontificating on whether former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is "the least electable" Republican candidate or even simply "unelectable."
Some say that Romneycare, the Massachusetts state-run intervention into health insurance which was largely the model for Obamacare, makes Mitt Romney an ineffective opponent to take on President Obama's signature "achievement" -- an achievement that the majority of Americans has consistently wanted repealed since its inception.
Others argue -- perhaps from wishful thinking -- that Romney's Mormon religion will be held against him (interesting how it's usually liberals saying this will be a problem among conservatives) or that his work at Bain Capital (and the now famous picture of Romney and partners posing with money) will do him in. Some worry that Mitt Romney will not inspire enthusiasm, that he will struggle to get Republicans to contribute cash, man phone banks, and otherwise participate in the grassroots ground game critical to winning a major election. And everybody knows that Romney has changed his position on a range of issues from abortion to health care to gays in the military.
Other candidates, including Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum are calling Romney unelectable -- going after the "most electable" theme that has been a key early selling point for the Romney candidacy even if not made overtly by Romney himself. According to Associated Press exit polling during the recent New Hampshire primary, of primary voters who said that their "most important consideration was finding a candidate who could defeat President Barack Obama in November… Romney won 62 percent of their votes."
In short, the web is ablaze with articles discussing why Mitt Romney's electability is a myth. Color me skeptical of the current "unelectable" fad.
I understand all the arguments against Mitt Romney. I would add another: his aggressive anti-free trade rhetoric regarding China is ill-advised economic nonsense.
But there is something about the "he's unelectable" craze that resembles wishful thinking and attempts at political hypnotism. Romney's Republican primary opponents and Democrats who still expect him to be the nominee are waving the pocket watch in front of our eyes and saying "he can't win, he can't win…," hoping beyond hope that if we hear it enough we'll come to believe it.
Romney has more than a few things in his favor, not least the public perception that he is a man who understands the economy. Recent attacks on Bain may dent that shiny electoral vehicle, but they won't total it. And his achievements in "saving" the Salt Lake City winter Olympics are a non-partisan feather in his cap.
Romney seems distinctly presidential. And although Willard Mitt Romney has a patrician air about him, coming from a prominent and successful family, he comes across as likeable in a way that John Kerry never could. (And Kerry married his wealth, twice, while Romney earned his.)
Important in the theoretical world of electability, and in the real world of ever-increasing numbers of independent/unaffiliated voters, is that many of the areas that trouble conservatives -- and cause Newt Gingrich to call Romney a "Massachusetts moderate" -- allow Romney to appeal to the vast middle of America in a way that more intensely conservative candidates would struggle to match. It will be difficult for the left to credibly portray Romney as "extreme," one of their favorite tactics against Republicans.
And still all of this misses -- surprisingly for what the question of electability really means -- the fact that the Republican nominee will be running against a president with a record. It's a record of failure and incompetence and corruption and near-tyranny so all-encompassing that it allows Jimmy Carter a sigh of relief as he considers his own presidential legacy.
It is the reason that Charles Krauthammer, when asked who should be the Republican nominee, said "someone dull and competent" because this election "must be about Obama and Obama-ism" for Republicans to win. Of Republicans who are or were likely contenders for the presidential nomination, only Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels embodies "dull and competent" better than Mitt Romney does.
Channeling Krauthammer, the focus on President Obama's disastrous record -- rather than the lamentations of perfection-seekers -- is what comes through in the data as being in the minds of most Americans:
Pollster Scott Rasmussen finds that "former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the only GOP contender that most voters view as having a chance against President Obama. Fifty-three percent (53%) of Likely U.S. Voters think Romney is at least somewhat likely to beat the president in November. "
That view of electability is turning, albeit with obvious if waning reluctance, into electoral support.
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week had Mitt Romney three points ahead of Barack Obama in the key early primary state of Florida. And Romney's favorable/unfavorable rating is better than any of the other candidates asked about in the poll -- including Barack Obama. A CBS News poll released the same day as the Rasmussen data shows Romney two points ahead of Obama nationally, making Romney "the only GOP candidate to hold a lead over the president in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup." And a Saturday poll of South Carolina Republican voters shows Romney with massive 21-point lead over his closest rivals in the Palmetto State in the face of the most aggressive attacks yet faced by the Romney campaign.
To be sure, many polls show Obama ahead of Romney nationwide, but Romney leads every other Republican versus Obama with the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls having Obama ahead of Romney by less than two percent, as compared to leading Newt Gingrich by 9 points, Rick Santorum by 7 points, and Ron Paul by 5 points.
In political betting, after a week of intense assault by his Republican opponents and Democrats alike, Mitt Romney's odds of winning the South Carolina primary, the Florida primary, and the Republican nomination have each climbed slowly upwards (to roughly 85 percent, 95 percent, and 87 percent, respectively.)
Furthermore, the anti-Bain onslaught has not dented Romney's betting odds of winning the presidency itself, now standing just over 42 percent -- a remarkably high number so early in the nominating process and against an incumbent president who won an overwhelming victory just three years ago.
Pundits and politicians of all political stripes keep telling us that Mitt Romney is not electable -- or at least not as electable as we think. But the data simply doesn't back them up. Furthermore, and I say this with the utmost respect to those talented political writers who are also on the "least electable" train, there's a fair bit of projection going on:
Principled conservatives (and libertarians like me) wish that firm commitment to principle were the key factor in electability, especially having been through the last decade. In fact, it is barely a factor at all, at least during these days of extremely high unemployment and economic insecurity. People want results more than they want the candidate who is most right -- in any sense of the word.
This may not portend well for our republic's long-term prospects. But in the short term, for those who believe that our nation, and perhaps the world, can't afford another four years of Barack Obama, it is hard to be as troubled by Mitt Romney as some others are.
Do Republicans really need the "most principled" candidate to be motivated to help him beat the most imperfect president in modern American history?
One clue to the answer is the Romney campaign's $24 million fourth-quarter haul -- nearly doubling his closest Republican rival. Few things are more important measures of electability and enthusiasm for the candidate than hard, cold campaign cash.
Perhaps fortunately, the public is not listening to the chattering classes who are saying that Mitt Romney can't pull the Republican train to victory. Instead, they're taking a closer look at Romney -- policies, religion, Bain Capital and all -- and saying "I think he can. I think he can."