What History Tells Us About Romney’s Chances

The past suggests candidates who survive tough primaries do well in the general election

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney speaks during a rally in Tempe, Arizona April 20, 2012.

The emerging Democratic strategy of painting Mitt Romney as a rich and secretive flip-flopper is not new: it’s a line of argument thoroughly rehearsed by the parade of GOP challengers whom Romney managed to defeat for the nomination.

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Around this time every four years, the political class, in slow withdrawal from the primaries of the party out of power, wonders how much of the harm inflicted during the intramural contest will last through the summer and the fall.

My own sense is that Romney, who has proven himself a resilient and elastic political survivor, has emerged with the usual quotient of primary damage, which is to say not all that much.

The truly lasting primary wounds come when an incumbent finds himself under challenge from within his own party. In the two cases of such races in recent times—Ford v. Reagan in 1976 and Carter v. Kennedy in 1980—the sitting president prevailed in the short run only lose in November.

On the other hand, nominees who face harsh primaries tend to do well. Reagan v. Bush in 1980; Bush v. Dole in 1988; Clinton v. Himself in 1992; Bush II v. McCain in 2000; and of course Obama v. Clinton in 2008. Put another way, every recent president faced a primary campaign in which fundamental questions of character and competence and experience were raised, often at great length.

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The Romney aide who referred to the primaries as an Etch-A-Sketch that could be shaken blank as the general election approached picked a vivid and largely accurate—if ill-timed—metaphor for what successful campaigns tend to do. (If you think Romney’s shifting policy positions will do him in, for instance, then how did “Slick Willie” become President William Jefferson Clinton? Elections are, to say the least, fluid and complicated things.)

All of which is to suggest: the Obama-Romney campaign will be close all the way to the end, and the president will have to find more to say about Romney than Romney’s fallen GOP foes did. Obama knows this, for he’s been to this movie before. Remember the Clinton argument against Senator Obama becoming President Obama: that he was not ready for the job. Republicans also tried to make that case (among others) in 2008, and Senator Obama became President Obama. Get ready, then, for a few months of soft launches for anti-Romney arguments from the Democratic camp until it finds one that can’t be shaken off.

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