If Mitt Romney fails to get the Republican nomination, it won’t have anything to do with his much criticized $10,000 bet. For those of you who didn’t watch last night’s 12th Republican debate or followed my live blog of that event (how could you not?), Mitt Romney offered to bet Rick Perry $10,000 that Perry’s claim that, in Romney’s autobiography, Romney advocated using the health care law he helped implement in Massachusetts as a model for the nation was in fact incorrect. The exchange that precipitated Romney’s seeming spontaneous gesture went like this:
Romney: “You know what? You’ve raised that before, Rick.”
Perry: “It was true then, and it’s true now.”
Romney (holding out his hand): “I’ll tell you what, 10,000 bucks? Ten thousand dollar bet?”
Perry: “I’m not in the betting business.”
Here’s the video of the exchange:
I confess that when I saw this exchange I was struck more by the evident hostility between the two, and the fact that Romney was clearly rattled by the exchange, and didn’t really pay much attention to the size of Romney’s bet. It seemed obvious to me that Romney wanted to make the figure large enough to show that he was confident he was right. The size of the bet reflected his confidence, not his wallet. But that’s not how the pundits interpreted his words. Almost immediately – and this is a reminder of how communications technology has changed the dynamics of debate coverage – Democrats were using twitter feeds to point out how Romney’s offer signified just out of touch he is with “ordinary” Americans who couldn’t possibly risk $10,000 in a bet. And, just like that, the $10,000 bet became the defining moment of the debate for Romney, at least as viewed by the pundits. If Romney loses his campaign for the nomination, media wags will undoubtedly cite this as a turning point.
But they will be wrong. To begin, it’s common knowledge that Romney is a wealthy man, a point he acknowledged later in the debate in response to a question asking candidates if they understood financial hardship. (Romney’s net worth is estimated to be somewhere north of $200 million.) It’s not news to Iowans that he’s rich and Romney has never hidden that fact. Moreover, the media focus on the bet “gaffe” ignores that fact that Romney has now been running for president for almost six years – he’s practically a career campaigner! – and he’s never shown any ability to garner anything beyond minority support among Republican voters. By my count, he won eight states in 2008 – none of them with the possible exception of Michigan played any real role in affecting the outcome. I don’t say this to indict his candidacy – I say it to point out that it would be a surprise if he did attract enough Republican support to capture the nomination. I’ve been saying this all along. The media has largely missed this story, but the polling data doesn’t lie. Here’s the RealClear Politics national polls composite reading (Mitt in purple):
In November, 2010 – more than a year ago – Mitt was standing at 22.6%, leading the Republican race. Today, more than a year later, and after 12 debates, constant campaigning, endless media coverage, unrelenting support from opinion leaders and party elders, he’s at – drum roll please! – 20.8%! Now guess how much popular support Romney attracted in 2008 among those voting in the Republican nominating contests? Yes, that’s right – he won 22% of the vote!
Since 2007, then, Romney hasn’t gained support, and hasn‘t lost support – although he has lost the lead during the current nominating campaign. (Note – all polling data are from surveys in the field before last night’s debate). In fact, during the current nominating contests, his support has been amazingly consistent – never going above 25% and never dropping below 16%. While the media has spent an inordinate amount of time documenting the rapid change in candidates’ standings, they’ve missed the bigger story: that the purported frontrunner can’t seem to persuade 75% of Republicans to support him. Now, of course, he’s not the frontrunner – but it’s not because he’s lost support.
But, you ask, wasn’t he leading the race until recently? Yes, but Romney has been the “frontrunner” for two reasons: first, his name recognition put him high enough in the polls compared to lesser known candidates to make it appear that he was ahead early in the process, and because the Republican establishment has been fervently touting his candidacy. But the simple fact is that despite all this pressure from opinion leaders to anoint Mitt as the Republican nominee (the Party Decides!), the voters are not buying it – and they never have. Mitt’s sole road to the nomination has always been to win a war of attrition – to hope the other Republicans all flamed out leaving him the last man standing. Nothing that happened last night changed those dynamics.
Don’t believe me? Here’s $1.98 that says I’m right.