Mitt Romney Says No to 2016

Romney at the RNC convention, 2012

Mitt Romney preparing for convention acceptance speech 2012;
photo by Alan Clanton

Mitt Romney Says No to 2016
| published January 30, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


It’s not news to anyone except those who shun political news, but the 2016 Republican race for President is starting to heat up. In the short span of about 30 days, the already crowded field of would-be contenders grew ever more fractious and confusing.

Already in the process of raising money and hiring full-time staff, and already canvassing the all-important states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, at least a dozen hopefuls are testing the waters. At least four potential candidates have taken the all-important step of forming political action committees (PACs) which give them the immediate latitude to begin raising campaign money and deploying that cash for political purposes. Those Republicans—Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham—are all but officially in for 2016.

All four have begun raising money, all four have outlined the major themes of their campaigns, and all four are already engaged in the important early business of making distinctions between themselves and their presumed opponents. All that’s needed is for them to make their candidacies real with an announcement. Graham, who has the backing of his friend and political ally Sen. John McCain, says he will make his campaign official no later than April. Some experts say that it may be only a matter of weeks before both Bush and Christie say whether they are in or out.

A dozen others are exploring their options and testing the competition in that soon-to-be-busy arena. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will very likely be a candidate, and has been making frequent appearances at GOP forums around the country. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has also said he is considering running for President in 2016, and may be in the process of forming a PAC of his own in the near future. Both Paul and Rubio shared the stage at a political forum hosted by Charles and David Koch in January. Rand Paul has been campaigning in New Hampshire, betting on the state’s quasi-libertarian spirit to carry him to an early start.

But the name most frequently mentioned over the last two weeks is that of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, twice a Presidential candidate—once in 2008 when he lost the GOP nomination to McCain, and again in 2012 when he lost narrowly to President Barack Obama. Romney’s name came to the forefront of the conversation in January when he began dropping hints that he would consider another run in 2016. Those “hints” quickly turned into a very powerful conversation in the media, which in turn fueled heavy speculation that the GOP’s 2012 standard-bearer would return. When Romney upped the ante days later, acknowledging to reporters that he was giving the idea of another run “serious consideration,” the political analysts and the chattering classes went into hyperspace.

By the last week of January, the buzz about a Romney reboot was beginning to overtake all other political events, and a candidacy seemed in the offing.

But the Romney III sequel was not to be—sort of. On Friday, Romney held a conference call with hundreds of his closest supporters, friends and advisors. Citing a crop of new Republicans who represent the next generation, Romney said that he would not seek the Republican nomination for President in the run-up to 2016. He also said he would not be forming a PAC, nor would he be hiring staff to manage operations in early primary and caucus states, as others have done recently. Romney said he intends to “do whatever I can” to support the Republican nominee.

But Romney’s 10-minute phone call, which was recorded and widely disseminated across the news media within minutes, left out one critical thing that journalists always look for: an absolute, emphatic “no.” Romney did not close the door completely. Without naming by name any of his potential GOP opponents, Romney engaged in a lot of ambiguity over his decision to not run. Among other things, he said he firmly believed that he could win the Republican nomination, and he pointed out that recent polling showed him with a 2-to-1 advantage over his closest GOP rival. Romney also said he felt strongly that he could win in November 2016 against anyone the Democrats choose to nominate. Romney said that support for his candidacy was out there, and in large numbers.

And when he engaged in the hypothetical, telling his phone listeners that he has been—and will be—asked if there are circumstances which might cause him to change his mind at some later point, nudging him into a presidential run, Romney said it was “unlikely.”

But for political reporters looking for something to spin the story into something larger, this all seemed as if Romney was deliberately leaving the door open, even only a small degree.

At issue for the GOP has been concern among some top Republican strategists that Romney—facing off against Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner—would be an uncomfortable fit within the Republican long-term strategy of portraying Clinton as a creature of the past—not merely “old news,” but even a throwback to the politics of divisiveness and gridlock. Some among the GOP’s top strategists now feel that Hillary will be an easier target on both foreign policy and economics, and they point to the big Republican gains in the 2014 midterm elections as proof. Others worry that Romney will also be seen as a creature of the past, robbing the GOP of any chance to effectively deploy what they feel is their best offense against Clinton.

And many within the Republican Party worry that with Romney in the race, it may deprive the party’s center-right candidates of the opportunity to gain traction in what may become a fractious, contentious fight for the nomination. Romney, for example, would almost certainly draw support from some of the same activists who are already lining up to support Bush or Christie, while at the same time bolstering the chances of the more conservative candidates like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio. Romney might also divide the fundraising capabilities of the other top-tier candidates. A GOP with divided loyalties among the center-right candidates (Bush, Romney, Christie) would be a party more likely to open the way for insurgent candidates like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz.

Republican chairman Reince Priebus—hoping to avoid a repeat of the sometimes raucous, bitter nomination process of 2012—has said in numerous subsequent strategy sessions that he would prefer a more orderly, toned-down primary and caucus season in 2015-2016, as well as a shorter, more polite debate season. Post-election analysis conducted by the GOP in the months after the election of 2012 concluded that Romney was deeply damaged by the sometimes contentious tone of the 20-plus televised debates.

In the meantime, some Republicans are dismayed by Romney’s decision not to run in 2016, while others are breathing a quiet sigh of relief. Romney’s own longtime allies and associates were divided on the prospect of a Romney reboot in 2016. A few former Romney political associates had already signed on to the campaigns of either Bush or Christie, including Romney’s top guy in Iowa in 2012, who just a week ago committed to Bush. Furthermore, despite Romney’s assertion that he felt there would be sufficient fundraising to make a 2016 run a success, a few of Romney’s biggest financial backers had already committed to Bush earlier in January, not long after Bush formed his new PAC, Right to Rise.

Bush commented on Romney’s departure from the race on social media.

“Though I’m sure today’s decision was not easy,” Bush said in a statement posted online, “I know that Mitt Romney will never stop advocating for renewing America’s promise through upward mobility, encouraging free enterprise, and strengthening our national defense.”

Romney’s decision helps to clear the path somewhat for Bush, now generally regarded as the establishment candidate and the candidate of the center-right. But Bush will have plenty of competitors in the overall Republican field. Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, and fellow-Floridian Marco Rubio have all expressed interest in 2016, or have already formed PACs and deployed staff to the early primary and caucus states. But the list does not stop with those five or six. Also expressing interest in running for President in 2016 are Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Indiana Senator Mike Pence, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Christie Closer to Candidacy?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 27, 2015.

Scott Walker Considering 2016 Run?; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; January 28, 2015.