Skip to main content
ABC News
The Talented Mr. Romney

Right now, former Governor Mitt Romney is considered the favorite to win the Republican nomination. Bettors at Intrade, a political futures market, estimate that he has a 24 percent chance of doing so, just ahead of Tim Pawlenty, who has a 19 percent chance.

Here’s a scary number for Mitt Romney. According to a recent survey from Public Policy Polling, 61 percent of Republican primary voters would not be willing to vote for somebody who “supported a bill at the state level mandating that voters have health insurance,” something that Mr. Romney did in Massachusetts.

To the extent that voters will become more aware of this during the course of the primary campaign — and you can be certain that the other Republican candidates will make every effort to ensure that they do — there is significant downward potential in his numbers.

Despite that, I think I’m still in the “buy” category on Romeny at this price. Part of this is because of weaknesses that exist with some of some of the other candidates. Mr. Romney seems to have several tactical advantages.

Essentially, you can divide the Republican candidates into two groups. First, there are what I’d call “quick strike” candidates: those who need to score a win in Iowa or New Hampshire and hope to march the nomination on the basis of momentum.

Sarah Palin is the paradigm case of such a candidate. Iowa is not a terrible state for her given how conservative the Republican electorate tends to be there. She is the most recognizable name in the Republican field, an advantage that will diminsh over time as the other candidates spend more time on voters’ television screens. And, in large part because expectations have become fairly low for Ms. Palin, a win in Iowa would be a game-changing event.

Sarah Palin could win in Iowa. But it is unlikely Ms. Palin would win the nomination unless she does take Iowa, or perhaps places a very close second there. If the primary process is long and drawn out, the well-placed concerns about Ms. Palin’s poor standing among independent voters may trump eveything else; voters, delegates, and other candidates, worried they may be throwing away a chance to defeat Barack Obama, will collaborate to make her path harder. Nor has Ms. Palin made much of an effort to hire strategists, or to build out a campaign infrastructure. Her fundraising has also not been especially strong given the magnitude of her personality, partly because she tends to appeal more to working-class voters who have less money to contribute to political campaigns. All of these things would harm her in an elongated primary process.

Then there are the “long haul” candidates. These candidates might not be quite as dynamic, but they have the cash and the organizational strength to be prepared for a long campaign, like the one that Democrats engaged in during 2008. These candidates probably also ought to have a reasonable amount of appeal to independent voters, because the longer the primary process draws on, the more time Republican voters will have think with their heads rather than their hearts and will focus on candidates who can win in November.

Into this group, you’d place a candidate like Tim Pawlenty. That does not mean that Mr. Pawlenty cannot win Iowa, or that he would not be harmed by a failure to do so. But there are enough scenarios where a candidate like Mr. Pawlenty places second or third in Iowa and eventually wins the nomination as a consensus choice.

The thing about Mr. Romney is that, perhaps uniquely among the Republican field, he qualifies for both groups. Due to a series of idiosyncrasies, he has “home-field advantage” in a number of early-voting states: he now has a residence in New Hampshire (and was governor in neighboring Massachusetts); his father was governor of Michigan; his Mormonism will make him very difficult to beat in Nevada.

What about Iowa? That’s less certain; most of the early polls show Mr. Romney running second there behind Mike Huckabee, whom he lost to in 2008. But if he were able to in Iowa, Mr. Romney would very probably follow it with wins in New Hampshire, Nevada and Michigan, which would make him the heavy favorite to win the nomiantion.

But Mr. Romney, also, will probably have the most money from among the Republican candidates (other than, perhaps, Donald Trump). He may have the strongest argument about electability, since he polls relatively well against Barack Obama. He’s run for president before, and in 2008, he accumulated a lot of delegates in a lot of different states, including in some that other candidates ignored. Mr. Romney, therefore, could potentially win the nomination as a “long haul” candidate as well.

It’s very difficult to estimate exactly how harmful the health care debate might be to Mr. Romney. Perhaps I’m not applying a significant enough penalty for it. But the fact that he has these two distinct paths to the nomination leads me to view him as a reasonably good bet at 3:1 odds against.

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