Should Mitt Romney have run for president?

The 2012 Republican nominee joked about regretting having not run for president this election. But would he have stood a chance against Trump?

Cliff Owen/AP/File
Mitt Romney speaks the US Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform Summit in Washington, Wednesday.

Rumors swirled last year about Mitt Romney throwing his hat in to the presidential race, an idea that never materialized as the party instead became divided by Donald Trump’s successful bid.

Since the primary season, Mr. Romney has led the camp of Republicans criticizing Mr. Trump. On Wednesday, he teased an idea of what could have been by joking that he often asks himself why he stayed out of the 2016 race for the White House.

"I get asked on a regular basis, 'Boy, why aren't you running this year?' I ask myself that a lot too,” he said in a speech at the US Chamber of Commerce, as reported by ABC News.

His audience, consisting of many traditional GOP backers, may have heartily agreed with him. Romney, a GOP-establishment favorite when he ran for president against Obama in 2012, is a Harvard-educated, business-oriented Republican candidate who is deeply respected by Republican donors and known for his experience in politics but also criticized for his “stiff” personality – the exact opposite of Trump.

As Trump deepens the fractures within the GOP, Romney may seem a safe candidate for Republicans who yearn for the way the party used to be.

But Romney acknowledged the hurdles he would  have faced in running again. The biggest: He already ran and lost, twice. The last time the Republican party nominated a person who lost before was in 1968 with Richard Nixon.

In a note that presaged current events, his 2012 loss triggered the growth of an internal fight within the more moderate and conservative factions of the party. As the Washington Post reports, evangelical leaders and conservative activists say they’ve been catering too much to moderates, while establishment GOP officials call for softening rhetoric on social issues following a huge loss of votes from young people, African-Americans, and Hispanics.

"Latinos were disillusioned with Barack Obama, but they are absolutely terrified by the idea of Mitt Romney," GOP fundraiser Ana Navarro told CNN in 2012, referring to Romney’s hardline anti-immigration rhetoric that some worried was alienating the party from fast-growing segments of the population.

All those may be reasons why Romney stayed on the sidelines this year, occasionally delivering his opinions on the candidates and the current presidential campaign.

"I’ve watched the presidential debates, I’ve looked at the give-and-take, there’s been almost no discussion of those things I’ve described," he said in the speech, after sketching out economic and educational challenges facing the country. "The national debt and how to deal with it, reforming entitlements, I don’t think either candidate for president has said they’re going to reform entitlements one way or another."

In March, he also delivered a detailed criticism of the Republican candidate on various issues ranging from foreign policy to his character, wealth, morality and business, as NBC reports. He said Trump is not a "business genius," there may be "bombshells in his tax returns," and "dishonesty is Trump's hallmark."

But in a hypothetical Romney 2016 run, he could have beat Trump in the category that the latter scores best: white voters. According to a FiveThirtyEight analysis earlier this month, Trump’s share of white voters is much smaller than Romney’s in 2012.

"Trump is trading one type of white voter for another. Even as he piles up support among white men without a college degree, he’s on track for a record poor performance for a Republican among white voters with a degree," Harry Enten wrote. "And right now, that tradeoff is a net negative for Trump, compared with Romney."

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