It was a surprising Friday. As we are now well aware, Mitt Romney’s conference call with key supporters was not to “fire up the base” for another presidential run but rather to inform his listeners that he will not pursue the White House for a third time. As expected, much speculation is occurring as to how this development affects the remaining GOP presidential aspirants.
Many believe that the greatest beneficiary of Romney’s departure is former Florida governor, Jeb Bush; the impending battle between these two principals was commonly labeled as a fight for the heart of the Republican establishment. But, that may not be so readily apparent. Reports show that Romney, on the night of his announcement, actually met with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and not Bush. Though it is not known what Romney and Christie specifically discussed Friday evening, it is near certain that the conversation was not about helping Bush.
Romney’s decision not to run is likely a positive one for the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee, himself. Though leading in virtually every early GOP poll, Romney’s margin was far below what one would expect for a reigning presidential nominee. In most surveys, he never broke even 30 percent, meaning seven out of every 10 Republicans polled were consistently choosing someone other than Romney.
Compare this pattern to that of Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee. She routinely breaks 50 percent and without Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) included on the ballot test, the former first lady’s support level tops 60 percent.
Additionally, we need only to go back to the 2012 primaries and caucuses to see former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), with little in the way of money and weak to the degree that he wasn’t even a factor in his home state, defeating Romney in eleven nomination events. Therefore, against a sub-standard Republican field three years ago, Romney had a difficult time. Chances are, he would have fared worse this time.
Irrespective of how Romney’s decision affects the eventual Bush and Christie campaigns, his absence from the field causes a void; an abyss that some of the newcomer candidates hope to fill. In fact, even Romney himself said, in a veiled slap at Bush, that the party needs to turn to a new leader and nominate a candidate from among the up and coming Republican stars that will be in this stable of 2016 presidential candidates.
One potential contender that a Romney-less field helps is Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Beginning to feel squeezed between Romney and Bush to his left and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and ex-Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to his right, Sen. Paul now has a chance of doing some open field running in hopes of attracting a substantial number of Romney base supporters.
While it is likely that Bush will assume the early polling lead after Romney’s departure, his advantage is likely to be tepid. No candidate seems to feel that Bush’s presence is so daunting to cause he or she to back away – Bush in the race is clearly not why Romney declined to run – thus, we can continue to expect a very large number of Republican candidates. This means a very fragmented field where no one might gain a clear advantage throughout the nomination season. If so, then an open Republican convention becomes a distinct possibility.
Eventually, the combined weight of the other candidates could topple Bush, meaning that someone other than the presidential son and brother could become the GOP nominee when the Republican National Convention gavel falls in Cleveland during the summer of 2016. Therefore, while Romney’s passive decision announced Friday seems to help Bush today, in actuality, this could be the first in a series of dominoes to fall that instead may pave the way for an alternative candidate to come forth and claim the nomination prize.