The prospect of Mitt Romney winning the Republican nomination has many conservatives anxious. AWR Hawkins of BigGovernment sums up the sentiment well when he writes:
Mitt Romney is always quick to lambast other Republicans for being career politicians, as if this is his first rodeo and he is a political newcomer. However, the truth is he’s been in politics for over seventeen years, many of which have been spent appealing to liberals and moderates and fighting to keep from being identified with Ronald Reagan.
Talk to enough conservatives, and you’ll hear basically the same sentiment sooner or later: Romney is a smooth operator, but they are not sure he’s a bona fide conservative. Abortion was his major stumbling block in 2008, and this cycle it is the Massachusetts health care plan.
I’m not going to weigh in on the “real Romney” today. Instead, I want to focus on Romney’s substantial strategic advantages in the upcoming nomination battle, which might very well give him a leg up. And the fact that people question his true conservatism is hardly a disqualifier from the GOP nomination, if history is any guide. After all, people questioned the beliefs of George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain, and they all won the nomination.
A big reason why is that the nomination process is not a litmus test wherein the true conservatives make the final call. Instead, it’s an election just like any other – where relatively uninformed, non-ideological voters in the center make the ultimate decision. Sure, these swing Republicans are more conservative than the swing voters in the general election – but they’re still not what you would call conservative. The candidate who can appeal to them is the one who wins – and to do that, it takes something more than ideological purity.
Romney has that going for him. I count at least three distinct advantages.
1. There is nobody to his left. In 2008 Romney was crowded on his left, where one could argue John McCain and Rudy Giuliani were situated, as well as his right, where he had to fight Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee. This year, the only candidate to his left is arguably Jon Huntsman, who so far has shown no indications that he’s a viable challenger.
This matters because many Republican primaries have scores of moderates and even liberal Republicans who hold the balance of power. Consider the following chart:
In 2008 McCain won the nomination in large part because he dominated this group. If Romney can do the same this year, and the conservative vote is split (as it was in 2008), he’ll be in the catbird seat.
2. He has money. So far this cycle, the only candidates who have demonstrated the ability to raise cash have been Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. This is a big deal, and to appreciate why, consider the following chart, which tracks the total disbursements of the major GOP candidates through February 2008 (the month of Super Tuesday).
Romney, Giuliani, and McCain all spent more than $50 million through that point in the cycle. And if you want to know why Mike Huckabee couldn’t translate his Iowa caucus victory into nationwide victory, this chart takes you at least some of the distance. He simply didn’t have the money.
This is especially important with Romney in 2012, for polling of Republican primary voters has suggested that the conservative critique of the former Massachusetts governor has not yet registered. The recent AP/GfK poll found that 58 percent of GOP primary voters view Romney as a conservative, compared to 18 percent who see him as a moderate and just 13 percent as a liberal. The recent PPP poll finds that 55 percent of Republican voters have a favorable impression of Romney, which basically squares with the recent ABC News/Washington Post, where he had a 60 percent favorable rating among conservative Republicans.
Romney is going to have the money to maintain this favorable rating. Will another candidate have the scratch to diminish it? It remains to be seen.
3. The Mormon Corridor. If Romney were to get into an Obama-Clinton style knockdown-dragout fight against some Republican, he’ll have an advantage in those blue and purple states where moderate and liberal Republicans are numerous. Another huge advantage he’ll have is the so-called “Mormon Corridor,” or the region in the Mountain West where Mormons make up a disproportionately large share of the population. He did quite well there in 2008, as the following chart illustrates:
The only battle he lost here was Arizona, which was McCain’s home state. These states do not have that many delegates, but it was victories in small states like these that made the difference for Barack Obama in 2008. Combine the Mormon Corridor with the traditionally blue states, and suddenly Mitt Romney has a very substantial lead in the delegate count, should it come to that.
In conclusion, I’ll just say the following. I personally am agnostic about the GOP nomination battle, at least at this point. My home state of Pennsylvania votes towards the very end, so it is unlikely that my opinion will matter.
I know that many are not pleased about a prospective Romney victory. To them I will again point out that this would not be unprecedented. As I mentioned above, previous nominees have included Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, and John McCain. Grassroots activists who are upset about the ostensible control of the moderate GOP elite should really connect the dots between these nominees and the nomination procedures that have selected them. To put it bluntly: the way the nomination battle is set up greatly favors the establishment. t’s all about money and/or name recognition to pick up the marginal voters, who are often themselves moderates.
Conservatives who are looking to effect lasting change in their own party should thus take a page out of the progressive playbook from the 1910s: these reformers didn’t just pass policy reforms, they passed procedural reforms that have lasted to this day. For instance, the progressive-sponsored constitutional amendment requiring the direct election of senators was one of the most significant procedure reform in the 20th century, with only the Voting Rights Act being more important. There’s a lesson here: if grassroots activists want to take some of the power away from the big money centers of the party establishment, they should start looking at the GOP nomination process as something that could be substantially reformed.