Mitt Romney isn’t running for president in 2016 after all, and Republican strategists are heaving a sigh of relief.
With a large Republican field forming, it had become clear that Mr. Romney wouldn’t sail to the nomination, after winning it in 2012. Donors from the GOP’s establishment wing were in a bind. And a key operative, David Kochel of Iowa, just signed on with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Mr. Kochel was with Romney in both of his past presidential runs.
Romney’s decision to step aside, three weeks after a surprise announcement that he might run again, helps to clarify the GOP contest and makes the choices clearer for donors and strategists on whom to back.
“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,” Romney told supporters on a conference call Friday morning, according to multiple news outlets.
So who benefits most from Romney’s decision?
“Obviously, Bush is a no-brainer,” because of the big-money donors both he and Romney were competing for, says Ford O’Connell, chairman of CivicForumPAC.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, too, is competing in the GOP’s establishment wing, and benefits from seeing Romney go, for the same reason. But two other likely candidates – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – also stand to benefit, because they’re the two with the best shot at winning support both inside and outside the party establishment.
Romney’s decision benefits “Walker, Bush, Rubio, and Christie, with an emphasis, I would argue, on Rubio and Walker,” says Mr. O’Connell. “Walker and Rubio can run in both lanes.”
Between now and the end of March, all the prospective candidates are raising as much money as they can so they can post impressive totals for the first quarter of 2015. Fundraising, polls, staff hires, and positive media are the main ingredients of the “invisible primary” – the early period when likely contenders test their clout.
Romney was doing well in early polls of GOP voters on their party’s 2016 nomination, at or near the top of most (in the high teens or low 20s). But he wasn’t clearing the field. Analysts ascribed his poll numbers mostly to name recognition, as most voters aren’t paying close attention to the race. The first primaries and caucuses are a little more than a year away.
The departure of Romney also boosts the Republican Party’s chances of taking their next presidential nomination to a new generation. Though Bush is in his 60s, Christie is in his 50s and Walker and Rubio are in their 40s.
With Hillary Rodham Clinton seen as the likely Democratic nominee, some Republicans are hoping for a big age contrast. They want to show that they’re the party of the future, the party of new ideas. Like Mrs. Clinton, Bush brings his family legacy to the table. Christie, Walker, and Rubio would all signal a new day for the Republican Party.
Romney, too, would have been seen as a candidate of the past, having run twice before for president.
Still, Romney is not entirely ruling out the possibility that he may yet run for president in 2016.
“I’ve been asked, and will certainly be asked again if there are any circumstances whatsoever that might develop that could change my mind,” he said in his statement. “That seems unlikely. Accordingly, I’m not organizing a PAC or taking donations; I’m not hiring a campaign team.”
If anything, Republicans may be praying most for clarity in their presidential field. That probably won’t happen until next year. In the meantime, if Romney sees an opening to run after all in 2016, it may be hard to keep him at bay. He lost to President Obama in 2012 by only 4 percentage points – 47 percent to 51 percent.
Polls last year showed some buyer’s remorse among general election voters. A CNN/ORC poll taken last July had Romney beating Mr. Obama by 9 percentage points, if the election were held again. Polls like that may have encouraged Romney to explore running again. But for now, he’s back to the sidelines.