When Mitt Romney was trounced by President Obama in the 2012 election, it seemed as if the former governor of Massachusetts was a political corpse. Romney "appears well on the way to disappearing," wrote The Washington Post in a merciless campaign autopsy, "with a not-so-gentle shove from his own party." The Post, citing critical remarks from people across the Republican spectrum, said Romney was "a political amalgam with no natural constituency beyond the business community" and that he was "unlikely to play a significant role in rebuilding his party."
Less than two years later, Romney has miraculously rehabilitated his political image in conservative circles. It has reached the point that many Republicans would be happy to see him do more than merely help rebuild the party — they might even want him to lead it.
On Tuesday, Romney opened the door ever so slightly to another run in 2016, telling a radio show that "circumstances can change." On Wednesday, a poll of Iowa caucusgoers showed Romney easily leading a field of possible Republican presidential contenders in 2016. Romney won the support of 35 percent of respondents, compared with a mere 9 percent for his closest rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. (The results are all the more impressive considering that Romney lost the Iowa caucuses in both 2008 and 2012.)
What's going on?
We should start by saying that Romney in all likelihood will not run in 2016. It would be his third time, and anyone who has watched the Netflix documentary Mitt knows that Romney is sane enough to spare himself another years-long trip through the campaign meat grinder.
That said, there have been several theories for why everything is suddenly coming up Romney. Bernie Quigley, writing at The Hill, had one of the more poetic efforts, saying the 2014 version of Mitt-mentum is a sign that the GOP has grown more moderate:
Why Romney? Why now? Possibly like John Mayer, all this time, Romney has been "waiting for the world to change." The difference this time is not with Mitt Romney. Romney does not change. Romney does not "reinvent" himself. The difference this time is with us. [The Hill]
Chris Cillizza, writing at the Post, said Republicans believe that recent events, such as Russia's military incursions in Ukraine, prove that Romney had been right about a lot of things in 2012. Furthermore, Cillizza added, "the 'establishment' 2016 candidates don't look great." Meanwhile, David Weigel at Slate argued that the poll, coming so early in the election season, is basically meaningless, and that Romney probably won on name recognition.
Still, it seems odd that Republicans would flock to a man who lost a presidential election in the modern-day equivalent of a landslide. It would be like Democrats rallying around Michael Dukakis in 1992.
The Democratic response to John Kerry's demoralizing defeat in 2004 is an instructive example. By August 2006, two years after Kerry's loss to George W. Bush in a comparative squeaker of an election, Democrats had already moved on. Polls at the time showed that voters favored Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and John Edwards over their erstwhile standard-bearer. And by the time Barack Obama released The Audacity of Hope two months later, he was catapulted firmly into second place, while Kerry brought up the rear in fifth.
As a candidate, Kerry shared a lot in common with Romney. They are both enormously wealthy. They both made their political careers in Massachusetts. They both at times were painfully awkward campaigners. They were both tagged as flip-floppers. And they both won the first general election presidential debate, setting hearts afire in their respective camps only to come up short in the end.
Yet Kerry was never seriously considered as a potential candidate in 2008.
It could be that the Republican field in 2016 is weak. Perhaps "Romney" was the only name that rang bells in the heads of Iowa voters. But there are several marquee names on the GOP side who have received a lot of exposure on Fox News and other national media outlets. Rand Paul is a senator and a son of a former presidential candidate. Jeb Bush has the most famous surname in Republican politics. Paul Ryan was Romney's running mate. Rick Perry ran for president in 2012 and is the governor of Texas. Marco Rubio was the Barack Obama of the GOP before he turned into a falling star. Chris Christie is, well, Chris Christie. And none came even close to Romney.
Perhaps Romney's main selling point over his peers is that he has already survived a GOP primary process. Everyone else on that list is guilty of certain conservative heresies — mostly around the issue of immigration — which makes the GOP's notoriously purist primary voters hesitant to give their support to anyone who hasn't been stamped with a seal of approval. Contra Quigley, there's no evidence here that the base has become more moderate — in fact, it is just as likely that the base has grown even warier of the politicians who claim to represent it.
All of this is another way of saying that the GOP nomination is wide open — so open that maybe even one Willard Mitt Romney could win it.