Mitt Romney's phantom comeback

William JordanUS Elections Editor
February 17, 2014, 6:22 PM GMT+0

Despite recent 'buzz', there is no polling evidence that Mitt Romney is enjoying a resurgence in popularity

The Boston Globe reports that pundits, supporters and donors have begun quietly suggesting “without irony” that Mitt Romney should run again in 2016 (Romney, for his part, recently gave an answer to the 2016 question: “Oh, no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no”). The report gives us new evidence that the Romney “buzz”, which has followed the release of a Netflix documentary about Mitt’s two presidential runs (tagline: “Whatever side you’re on, see another side”), his numerous recent media appearances, and a cameo in a New Hampshire GOP Primary poll, is being taken very seriously in some circles.

But aside from the media attention, is there any evidence that the guy who won 24 states and 47.2% of the popular vote in 2012 is more popular now than he was then?

Based on the polling data, the answer appears to be “No”.


The 2012 election has been revisited before. In November 2013, just over a year after Obama defeated Romney by a four-point margin, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found Romney leading Obama by the same margin, 49%-45%, in an “obviously hypothetical” rematch. In YouGov research conducted from February 6th-7th, we went about it in a slightly different way, asking people who voted for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama whether they would do it again. We found an ostensibly similar picture: 90% of people who voted for Romney would do it again, compared to only 79% of Obama voters who would.

Clearly Romney fares better, although he had fewer voters to begin with. As a proportion of the voters each of them actually received in 2012 (66 million for Obama and 61 million for Romney), the GOP candidate ends up with 55 million votes retained to Obama’s 52 million. Not exactly a wipeout. It’s also unclear for any poll that hypothetically revisits 2012 how much it says about renewed hope for Mitt Romney – who has notably been liberated from the scrutiny of a presidential campaign ­– rather than about dissatisfaction with an incumbent president who has spent the last year defending his administration over leaks, scandals and Obamacare roll-outs.


Another, maybe better, place to look for a Romney renaissance might be his favorability ratings.*

Romney struggled with these ratings in 2012 and 2008 and was viewed less favorably than his opponents more often than not, so an improvement here could provide concrete evidence of a Romney ‘resurgence’. But it hasn't happened.

Averaging together eight weeks of YouGov/Economist polls tracking Mitt Romney’s favorability numbers immediately before the election, he was viewed favorably by 44.5% and unfavorably by 49.75%, for a net rating of roughly -5.

As of February 6th-7th, views of Romney are 41% favorable and 47% unfavorable, for a net rating of -6. This not only suggests insubstantial change in public opinion about the former candidate, it suggests that Romney is still viewed less favorably than Obama, whose net favorability has averaged -2 in the last four weeks of YouGov/Economist polls.

Two things have changed and are worth noting. First, more people now respond ‘not sure’ (13% now versus about 6% in 2012). Second, the feelings of many Americans about Romney have shifted in a big way from the very category to the somewhat category. Very favorable opinions, for instance, have fallen from 23% to just 13%. Very unfavorable opinions have fallen from 35% to 26%.

This could be evidence of many things – not least of how polarized opinion about a candidate can become at the tail-end of a two billion dollar presidential campaign – but it doesn’t support the idea that the Romney brand has turned a corner with voters, and it appears to suggest that Romney failed to ever establish a durable fan base of his own (a fan base like would probably be necessary to carry him through a third primary, let alone a general election).

Relatively speaking, these numbers are far from bad. In terms of national net favorability, Mitt Romney is somewhere between a post-Bridgegate Chris Christie (33%-46% unfavorable) and Mike Huckabee (39%-38%), two of the only GOP politicians mentioned in relation to 2016 that have name-recognition comparable to the 2012 Republican presidential nomineee (Among Republicans, he beats Christie handily and about ties with Huckabee). But this might also indicate how much of the Romney buzz – and how seriously it has or hasn’t been taken – has to do with the state of the Republican Party itself, rather than the former candidate.

And for comparison: potential Democratic 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton looks formidable as ever. Though her favorability ratings declined throughout the second half of 2013, they do appear to be making a comeback and have averaged 50% favorable to 43% unfavorable over the past four weeks, including an average of 28% ‘very favorable’ views, giving the former Secretary of State a sizable advantage over the former governor and the highest ratings of any politician appearing in recent polls.

*(While favorability ratings are hardly sure-fire as predictors of electoral outcomes, they are one of the only measures that track a politician’s standing with the public over long periods of time. They also avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in horserace-style match ups with potential opponents, like 2016 primary polls, where results at least partially depend on the popularity and name-recognition of the other people in the poll – and on pollsters being prescient enough to know who those opponents might be.)

The top line results for the Mitt Romney documentary poll can be found here.

Complete tables for the poll can be found here.

(Update: Additional clarifying notes have been added to the poll results.)

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.

Image: Getty

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