Mitt Romney's Terrible Timing

For the third election cycle in a row, the former Massachusetts governor was in the right place at the wrong time.

Jim Young/Reuters

Everyone's got a theory for why Mitt Romney never made it to the White House. Too stiff. Too rich. Bad staff. Too many flip-flops. Prejudice against Mormons. A failure to convey the real Mitt. But more than anything, Romney's problem might have been bad timing.

During a call with staffers Friday morning, Romney told them he wouldn't run for president in 2016, ending a period of intense speculation, as the prospect of a third Romney campaign went from improbable rumor to widely held expectation.

"After putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I’ve decided it is best to give other leaders in the Party the opportunity to become our next nominee," he said, according to a prepared statement obtained by Hugh Hewitt. "I believe a Republican winning back the White House is essential for our country, and I will do whatever I can to make that happen."

Once again, it seems Romney has ended up in the right place at the wrong time. As I noted a couple weeks ago, when the Romney boomlet began, he ran in 2008 as a true conservative candidate. But after the disappointments of the George W. Bush's second term, a conservative former governor simply wasn't what his party wanted. If Romney had beaten John McCain in the GOP primary, he might have been perfectly poised to win the White House: With the economy collapsing, a turnaround whiz from the private sector could have appealed to many Americans. But it was too late for that. McCain floundered, and Barack Obama won.

The best time for Romney to run for president was probably in 2011, when President Obama's standing was still battered by the recession and the backlash to the Affordable Care Act. It was the right moment for a guy who could sell himself as a business leader with a track-record of fixing troubled enterprises. Unfortunately for him, the economy improved enough over the course of the following year to help Obama win reelection in November 2012 by a solid margin.

So why not 2016? Romney suggested in his statement that he believed he could win the nomination, but worried that he would lose the general election. "I am convinced that with the help of the people on this call, we could win the nomination," he said. "Our finance calls made it clear that we would have enough funding to be more than competitive. With few exceptions, our field political leadership is ready and enthusiastic about a new race. And the reaction of Republican voters across the country was both surprising and heartening."

Nevertheless, he added, "I do not want to make it more difficult for someone else to emerge who may have a better chance of becoming that president."

One could argue he's got that backwards. The natural pattern of presidential elections suggests that Democrats are the underdogs in the 2016 race—a party seldom holds on to the White House after two terms, and Nate Cohn notes that current economic models would suggest a Democratic popular vote of 48.5 percent. If Romney could have won the Republican nomination, he might have been able to realize his dream of becoming commander in chief.

But just as circumstances seemed to conspire to produce the perfect moment for Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush pulled the rug out from under him. In mid-December, Bush announced his decision to run, assuming the mantle of moderate, establishment candidate from Romney. Since then, some of the people who staffed Romney's campaign, and many of those who helped fund it, have attached themselves to a Bush campaign. On Thursday, operative David Kochel, who ran Romney's Iowa strategy in both previous campaigns, went to work for Bush in a presumptive campaign-manager role. NBC News even reports that some of the people invited to join Romney's Friday call were already committed to work for Bush.

Winning the nomination with Bush in the race would have been very challenging for Romney, despite his sanguine statement. Romney holds a commanding lead in RealClearPolitics' average for the Republican primaries, and a breathtaking 16-point edge on HuffPost Pollster's average. But as political watchers have noted, polling at this stage isn't a reliable gauge of very much. Given Romney's name-recognition and the fact that most people aren't tuned into the race—it's only January 2015, after all—it's only mildly surprising that he rose to the top. Many leading Republicans, including RNC Chair Reince Priebus, tried to throw cold water on the idea of third Romney campaign.

Watching presidential dreams die is always bittersweet, and it must feel especially poignant for Romney. He'd been effectively running for president since he announced that he wouldn't run for reelection as Massachusetts governor in December 2005—a nearly decade-long effort. In some ways, the roots of his candidacy stretched much further, back to his father George Romney's own unsuccessful 1968 campaign. And Romney's aides and family members truly believed in the cause. What others derided as constant reinvention, Mark Halperin notes, Romney's circle viewed as a single, consistent effort to show the American public that Mitt was the right man for the job—a principled, hardworking, competent, decent guy who would be great as president. Romney's aides bridled at the idea that he was "rebranding": Each of these different motifs was just a different way to try to get people to see the Real Mitt, who hadn't changed.

Toward the end of his statement, Romney encouraged those on the call to find a presidential campaign and work to restore Republican control of the White House. With an enormous, crowded field, they should have no trouble finding a spot to land. But for the true believers who thought all Romney needed to win over the American people was a stretch of good luck, that may be little consolation. Once again, Mitt Romney's timing just wasn't quite right.