At this stage of 2007’s presidential campaign cycle, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had raised $44 million — more than any other Republican candidate.
We won’t know how the current candidates compare to that benchmark until they file disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission next month. However, it’s likely most of them, even Romney, will fall short.
The amount of money sitting on the sidelines indicates a much larger issue: a puzzling enthusiasm gap for the Republican Party of 2011.
In June 2007, the GOP had just lost both houses of Congress and was saddled with President George W. Bush’s unpopularity. The party’s prospects for keeping the White House were bleak. Yet 73 percent of Republicans said they were satisfied with their presidential field.
Now the situation is reversed. The party regained the House majority last year and picked up six Senate seats, plus multiple governorships and hundreds of state legislative seats in the most decisive off-year election victory since before the New Deal.
Disappointing economic news continues to make President Barack Obama look vulnerable. Still, only 45 percent of Republicans are satisfied with their presidential candidates, according to last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That’s low for a party that showed enormous enthusiasm in last year’s midterms.
Republicans have traditionally favored “next-in-line” candidates. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Sens. Bob Dole and John McCain all ran for president and lost before winning the party’s nomination. While Romney would seem to fit that mold in some ways, there are major differences between him and earlier Republican nominees.
Reagan, Bush, Dole and McCain were more than just previous candidates. Reagan was a two-term governor of California and famous actor.
Bush was a World War II hero, ambassador, CIA director, congressman, party chairman and Reagan’s loyal vice president. Dole served in the Senate for 27 years, was party chairman and majority leader, and survived horrendous wounds from World War II. McCain, also a war hero, served more than 20 years in the Senate before winning the nomination in 2008.
Their records carried weight with the Republican faithful, even if they didn’t always sway the general electorate. Republicans felt like they deserved GOP support.
Over the years, that “deserves-it” factor has been more important in GOP primaries than ideological purity, campaign organization or electability. Yet it’s absent in the current field, where no candidate stands out as having earned the right to represent the party on the national ticket.
Romney deserves credit for saving the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, but otherwise he is a former one-term governor whose most significant accomplishment was a health care reform similar to Obamacare. But he is the default front-runner, which helps explain why Republican dissatisfaction is so high.
This dissatisfaction has left a possible opening for a late-entry candidate such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
It’s far more likely that Republicans will go into the primaries next winter not feeling that any of the candidates really “deserves” their votes.
Ralph Smith is an intern for the Commentary section of The Washington Examiner.