Earlier today, Mitt Romney announced, in a phone conversation with potential supporters, that he will not run for president in 2016, thus confirming what pundits had been predicting for some months now. Or not.
To me, Mitt’s announcement was not nearly as entertaining as the media reaction to it. Since at least Romney’s visit to Iowa last October on behalf of Senate candidate Joni Ernst, there has been growing speculation that Mitt was considering entering the presidential race for a third time. However, now that Mitt made his announcement, some of those same experts are scrambling to tell us why it was obvious Mitt was not going to run. The most common explanation seems to be that he took the pulse of the party activists, sensed lukewarm support, and decided to pull out. This could very well be correct. If so, it is consistent with the argument that some of my political science colleagues have made regarding how parties decide more generally who to back during the so-called invisible primary. But I would be far more confident in this story if pundits and colleagues had been telling me before Mitt’s decision why the signs indicated he was going to drop out due to lack of support.
Instead, I saw a lot of twitter comments like this:
“The Daily Beast ✔ @thedailybeast
EXCLUSIVE: ROMNEY RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT http://thebea.st/1ETNAwX
9:19 AM – 30 Jan 2015”
Mark HalperinVerified account @MarkHalperin
“To be clear: I don’t know what @MittRomney will say this morning, but every talk I’ve had w/ Mitt World leads me to believe he will run”
And this was only the tip of the iceberg. Many print journalists were making similar arguments for why Mitt would run. My point is not to pick on those who incorrectly believed Mitt was poised to throw his hat in the ring. To the contrary: If it was so obvious that Mitt was going to be culled from the field by party activists (and that he was being culled), why did so many smart people make the case for why he was running and, in some instances, why he should be running? The reality is that it was pretty easy to believe Mitt would run, particularly if you wanted him in the race. Early polls had him leading the Republican field and even beating Hillary in a one-to-one matchup. (Never mind that polls are completely unreliable predictors at this stage of the race.) Recent events overseas, such as the rise of the Islamic State and Putin’s gamble in the Ukraine seemed to validate his foreign policy views. Some argued that we would see the “authentic” Mitt this time around and that he was battle tested. In explaining why Mitt would want to run, media pundits cited his purported dissatisfaction with the weak field of Republican candidates.
For all these reasons, the group of “insiders” who some have fingered as putting the kabosh on a third try were previously, according to very recent media reports, actively working to persuade him to take the plunge. No wonder the estimable Gloria Borger could write in mid-January, “What a difference a few months makes. Now, multiple sources inside the Romney bubble tell me (and everyone else) that they ‘bet’ that he gets in the race.” In short, if the story of Mitt’s decision not to run is that he was culled by the party leaders, that culling didn’t seem very obvious to those who were reporting on the process. Instead, many very smart pundits seemed generally convinced, until today, that he was going to run. Indeed, many of them were making the case for why Mitt should run, arguing that he would be a formidable candidate in 2016. Yes, to be fair, there were others who argued against a third run by Mitt. However, I have yet to see evidence of a groundswell of opposition among party activists against a third Romney run. This is not to say it didn’t happen. It is just that it is hard to detect in the media coverage leading up to today’s announcement, and it is why I don’t necessarily buy the post-hoc rationalization that Mitt dropped out due to a lack of party support.
Why didn’t Mitt run? At this point I don’t know. I suspect no one else except Mitt himself does either. But that’s not going to stop many pundits from saying, “I told you so.” Just remember that some of them are the same people who were previously convinced a third run by Mitt was in the cards.
UPDATE: 3 p.m. And so the media correction begins: Romney didn’t decide – the party decided for him! It would be a lot more convincing if they told us this before Romney’s decision.
Next up: why the media case for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as the culprits in deflategate is so compelling – and why the same pundits will soon report how it was obvious it was all due to the weather.