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Romney still likely to win GOP nod

Invitations to Mitt Romney’s coronation as the Republican presidential nominee are already being embossed across Washington. Hall of Fame consultant Ed Rollins called the former Massachusetts governor’s nomination “almost inevitable,” and my distinguished debating partner David Hill argued here last week that “Romney’s got this contest where he needs it to be. There is no one remaining who can best him one on one.”

My own argument last week certainly underlines his powerful position. If Romney maintains his lead in New Hampshire, he is guaranteed a finalist berth, and if he were to win Iowa, I suggested, he would be inevitable. But there is a long way between October and victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

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Indeed, a striking anomaly in the poll data suggests a number of Republicans might be looking to vote for anyone but Romney.

Four different putative Republican candidates benefited from significant surges. Professor Charles Franklin charted them for Donald Trump (who opted not to run), Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Trump’s spike in April was less than 10 points and led nowhere. Bachmann jumped from the low single digits to almost 15 percent on average, based on the Ames straw poll and her early debate performance, but has now fallen back to the single digits. Part of Bachmann’s fall was Perry’s rise — he surged from the single digits to exceed 30 percent before crashing back to the single digits. 

One candidate never surged, never meaningfully increased his support during the course of the campaign to date — Mitt Romney.

In 2010, he polled nationally at slightly more than 20 percent on average. In July 2011 he registered 25 percent and today is slightly less than 24 percent. As others rise and fall, Romney’s numbers just don’t budge. Commentators helpfully remind us that “slow and steady wins the race.” But this isn’t a track meet. Winning requires getting votes. And Romney has had exceptional difficulty expanding his base.

To put his numbers in perspective, Romney has consistently averaged around 40 percent in New Hampshire, where he is truly well-liked.

Polling for the Iowa caucuses has been much sparser, and is not particularly reliable in any event, but the patterns there have been similar.

What can we learn from the fact that Perry and Cain have, at various points, overtaken Romney, a feat Bachmann also accomplished in Iowa, while Romney himself has been stuck? A generous interpretation would suggest he began as a known quantity to most all GOP voters, while intense media buzz created short-lived momentum for others, which fades as they come under the microscope and are found wanting.

Less charitably, one could say a whole lot of Republicans are looking for anyone other than Romney to support. Almost anyone with a few days of buzz is capable of scooping up a lot of votes and zooming ahead of Romney, who, except in New Hampshire, just can’t crack 25 percent of the vote. Is that enough to win? Potentially. Is it enough to win convincingly? No.

Of course, for Romney to lose, someone else has to win. Can they? Uncertain at best. Perry has the money to make it a contest, but some argue his early impression has been so negative he will be unable to recover. Perhaps, but at least he has the financial means, if not the intellectual or emotional capability. Cain appears well-positioned at the moment, both nationally and in Iowa. But his lack of preparation is also evident, and today he has neither the money nor the personnel to be anything more than an entertaining sideshow. It’s not even clear whether he will get on the ballot in many states. His operation will have to change quickly if he is to prove an effective challenger. 

The GOP might well end up, by default, with a nominee most don’t seem to want.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.