Mitt Romney

Republican former presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign event for Senate candidate Scott Brown at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, N.H., earlier this month. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Dan Balz

By Dan Balz
October 19, 2014 at 12:01 AM

When Mitt Romney managed to get about 25 percent support in the early polls against his 2012 Republican rivals, everyone asked, “What’s wrong with Mitt?” He was, after all, the presumed front-runner. Today, with a new Washington Post-ABC News poll showing something similar about 2016, the question could be, “What’s wrong with all the others?”

The survey tested Romney against the prospective field of 2016 GOP presidential candidates. Ann Romney told Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times last week that she and the Romneys’ sons are “done, done, done” with presidential politics after two failed campaigns. But for now, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 nominee is at the top of the heap in the eyes of rank-and-file Republicans.

The Post-ABC poll found that 21 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents say they favor the Romney as their 2016 nominee. That was almost double the 11 percent who named the person in second place, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

Romney benefits as much or more from the fact that no one among the likely candidates has yet filled the vacuum he left behind. That he enjoys top billing among prospective 2016 GOP candidates says something about Romney but much more about the others in the unsettled field.

Romney enjoys a warm glow today in part because of what’s happened to President Obama since 2012. Remembered are attributes or statements that look better in retrospect than they did at the time. Forgotten or dismissed are some of the mistakes Romney made in that campaign, from “self-deportation” to “47 percent.”

Question marks

With the assumption that Romney would not run again, the 2016 race always was going to look different than past Republican nominating contests. For the first time in a long time, there is neither an heir apparent (George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008, Romney in 2012) nor a dominant first-time candidate (George W. Bush in 2000).

Republicans assumed their 2016 field collectively would be far stronger than the group who competed in 2012, which is now regarded as one of the weakest in modern times. That could still turn out to be the case, but so far no one has begun to break from the pack.

The Post-ABC poll highlights this. Taking Mitt and Ann Romney at their word that a third campaign is not in their future, this race is as wide open as it could be, at least in terms of early popular support.

Absent Romney, Jeb Bush leads with a mere 15 percent, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) is second at 12 percent, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee is third at 11 percent — all within the five-point error margin.

After that, in descending order, are the single-digit candidates, all bunched between 8 and 6 percent: Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ben Carson and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Coming in below 5 percent are Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, at 1 percent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

Bush’s support is fairly even through various demographic and economic groups. Huckabee is stronger among women than men, while Rand Paul is the opposite. Paul Ryan does better with Republicans who have college degrees or incomes over $50,000 than he does with those without degrees and making less.

On perhaps the most important divide within the GOP, Bush does significantly better among Republicans who say they do not support the tea party, as befits his establishment pedigree. Huckabee and Paul do better with the much larger group of Republicans who say they back the tea party movement.

Any analysis of 2016 polls comes with the obvious caution: Given the number of candidates and the absence of a clear front-runner, these early measures are far from predictive. Beyond that, they can’t measure the fundraising wherewithal or the political staying power each candidate could bring to a campaign. Because they are national surveys, they don’t take into account strengths or weaknesses in the early states that winnow the field. Most significantly, they don’t measure the quality of campaigning skills.

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