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The Myth of ‘Anybody but Romney’

Perhaps the most fundamental question surrounding this year’s Republican nomination race has been what to make of the fact that support for Mitt Romney rarely exceeded 20 or 25 percent in national polls, despite seemingly running a strong campaign and being up against a somewhat marginal set of opponents.

One popular interpretation is that this 25 percent represented a hard ceiling on Mr. Romney’s support — and that it was only a matter of time before some “not Romney” candidate consolidated much of the remaining 75 percent of the vote and overtook him. This claim made a certain amount of sense: as rivals like Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich gained and lost ground in the polls, Mr. Romney’s numbers never seemed to move, with voters seemingly transferring their support from one surging candidate to the next.

The other interpretation — the one preferred by Mr. Romney’s campaign when I talked to staffers last week in New Hampshire — is that the 25 percent represented a base or floor of support for Mr. Romney, something for him to build upon.

It is, obviously, easier to resolve this debate now, given that Mr. Romney has made considerable gains in national surveys and now polls at well above 25 percent in most of them. Still, even without this evidence, there was reason to think that the interpretation offered by Mr. Romney’s campaign was the right one.

If you look beyond the top-line data in the polls, it becomes clear that nowhere near 75 percent of Republican voters have been vehemently opposed to nominating Mr. Romney. A Gallup poll conducted before New Hampshire’s primary, for instance, found that only about 30 percent of Republican voters considered Mr. Romney an unacceptable nominee. These numbers have bounced around a bit from time to time and from survey to survey, but these results are fairly typical when questions like these are put to the voters.

What you really have, then, is something like this: about 25 percent of Republican voters are in Mr. Romney’s base (incidentally, about 22 percent of Republicans nationwide voted for Mr. Romney in their party’s primaries in 2008). And about 30 percent of the Republican primary electorate is truly opposed to him.

That leaves a swing group of about 45 percent of the vote. These voters can certainly imagine candidates that they’d prefer to Mr. Romney — but they also consider him an acceptable choice, more or less.

What seems to have become clear is that the hypothetical candidate these voters might have preferred to Mr. Romney has not materialized.

As Lynn Vavreck and John Sides, a FiveThirtyEight contributor, note, Mr. Romney has considerable leads over candidates like Mr. Gingrich and Rick Santorum when tested in hypothetical one-on-one match-ups.

The same thing holds in South Carolina. In a recent Public Policy Polling survey there, 58 percent of voters said they’d theoretically prefer another candidate to Mr. Romney. However, no actual Republican got more than 39 of the vote when tested against Mr. Romney in a one-on-one match-up.

There are enough substantive and stylistic differences between the various “not Romney” candidates that they should not be viewed as interchangeable, this evidence suggests. A considerable number of Rick Santorum’s voters prefer Mr. Romney to Mr. Gingrich; a considerable number of Mr. Gingrich’s voters prefer Mr. Romney to Mr. Santorum.

It should also be noted, however — in defense of the “anybody but Romney” theory — that this is a relatively new phenomenon. As this chart by Jed Lewison makes clear, there were points during the campaign at which Mr. Perry, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Cain each had considerable leads on Mr. Romney in head-to-head polls.

So perhaps there was nothing inevitable about Mr. Romney’s expanding much beyond his 25 percent base of support. But these particular candidates proved to be flawed once voters took a deeper look at them.

To some extent, this was for idiosyncratic reasons: Mr. Perry’s poor performance in the debates; Mr. Cain’s sexual harassment scandal; Mr. Gingrich’s vulnerability to a series of attacks. These candidates also shared a common flaw: they largely eschewed a traditional field operation, which meant that they had little bedrock of support once the momentum turned against them.

Instead, voters in the swing group are now settling for Mr. Romney. They are not necessarily doing so enthusiastically: a recent Pew poll found that there has been little improvement in Republican voters’ overall views of their candidates, which is unusual but not unprecedented. (The 2004 Democratic presidential race, which parallels this one in many ways, was another such example.)

Whether this is a bad omen for Republican turnout in November is hard to say, but be wary when you see pundits making snap judgments about it. Democratic turnout was reasonably strong in November 2004, for instance, despite voters’ initial lack of enthusiasm for John Kerry. The opportunity to beat a polarizing incumbent is a powerful motivating force.

Nevertheless, the pattern should not be surprising. These voters were telling pollsters all along that Mr. Romney was an acceptable option. It may be for want of a better alternative, but they are now exercising that choice.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.