We are just days away from the start of the caucus and primary season, and while many questions remain, it is nevertheless possible to get a sense of where we have been, where we are going, and what all of this means for the Republican party.
It is undeniable that this race remains Mitt Romney’s to lose. While his position in the national horse race matchup is far from decisive—at this writing the RealClearPolitics average of the national polls shows Newt Gingrich with a slight lead—Romney dominates in all of the structural categories that typically correspond with victory. He has a huge money advantage—with more than $14 million in cash on hand as of the last report mandated by the Federal Election Commission (and that does not include the financial assistance he has received from “SuperPacs” that operate freely on his behalf). This financial edge gives Romney the ability to flood the early states with television advertisements and employ plenty of professional staffers to manage his ground game. Romney also has a runaway lead in the race for endorsements by Republican officeholders; while these move few voters, they reinforce Romney’s institutional advantages, giving him greater access to well-heeled donors as well as on-the-ground campaign intelligence.
What’s more, Romney also has the clearest path to victory. He is obviously trying to re-create John McCain’s 2008 coalition—uniting moderate Republicans with those who consider themselves somewhat conservative. While these voters are not the loudest voices in the GOP, they nevertheless constituted a majority of Republican primary voters in 2008, so it makes sense for Romney to go after them. And unlike McCain, Romney faces virtually no formidable competition for these center-right voters. McCain had to contend with Rudy Giuliani, who was making a serious play for them and had put together a well-funded operation, while Romney has to deal only with the Jon Huntsman candidacy, which has so far failed to gain traction.
Still, huge questions remain about the Romney candidacy. Historically, such massive institutional advantages have usually corresponded with a commensurate lead in national polling, as candidates with a strong enough reputation to attract insider backing usually draw widespread public support. Yet that is not the case this time around: Romney has struggled to move beyond 25 percent in the national polls, and while he has consistently enjoyed a strong lead in New Hampshire and Nevada, he has rarely been in first place in the other early states—Iowa, Florida, and South Carolina.
That said, the conventional wisdom about Romney’s candidacy—that there is a huge “not Romney” bloc of GOP voters out there—is massively overstated. Romney’s favorable rating among prospective Republican primary voters is quite high, upwards of 60 percent, and the latest CNN poll of GOP voters shows that 80 percent of Republicans either support him now or would consider supporting him at some point; this is a larger number than that of any of his major competitors. Yet the theory about a “not Romney” bloc has some merit; what is particularly noteworthy about his numbers is that a relatively large proportion of the GOP electorate—between 40 and 50 percent—believe he will eventually be the nominee, but his actual support tends to be about half that size. So, if there is no vehement “not Romney” faction of Republicans, there is at least a group of GOP voters who are hesitant for some reason.
This remains Romney’s big concern, and while history might favor his candidacy, recent history does not, at least not nearly to the same extent. McCain’s victory in 2008 came despite a relative lack of money, endorsements, and the attention usually accorded a frontrunner. Instead, McCain caught fire at just the right moment, won New Hampshire narrowly over Romney, then defeated Mike Huckabee narrowly in South Carolina, and that was pretty much that. It’s possible that this could happen again: While voters do not actively dislike Romney, they are not particularly drawn to him either, and might end up flocking to a reasonable alternative who emerged at precisely the right moment.
But who is that person? This pre-primary year has seen a series of candidates contend as the “not Romney”: Newt Gingrich in early 2011, followed by Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and now back to Gingrich. None of these candidates has been able to withstand the scrutiny that goes along with frontrunner status, and while Gingrich is the most recent “not Romney” candidate, he is also arguably the weakest. He has been a creature of the Washington establishment for decades, he has little institutional support, he has a ton of personal and political baggage, and he regularly displays a lack of discipline as a candidate.
In the end, it is hard to see how any of these candidates besides Romney can win the nomination. Is there a plausible scenario in which a Perry, a Gingrich, or a Bachmann carries the day, despite their limitations? Perhaps, but none comes easily to mind. Consider in particular Gingrich. Despite his polling lead nationwide, his numbers have plummeted in Iowa because of Romney’s and Ron Paul’s relentless attacks on his record. This is a pattern that could easily be repeated in state after state if need be, and Gingrich has not yet formulated an effective response. Thus, his national lead looks terribly ephemeral. Similarly, the other “not Romneys” have baggage that could be exploited, which explains why none of them has caught on to date.
And the latest candidate to see a polling boost—Ron Paul—will never be the Republican nominee for the simple reason that he is not actually a Republican. He caucuses with the congressional GOP for strategic reasons, but he is at his core a libertarian, and too far out of step with the Republican electorate on a host of issues, most obviously national security. Paul might be able to win the Iowa caucuses because turnout there will be very small, but he will really have nowhere to go after that. If anything, Paul’s rise probably helps Romney in that it diminishes the supply of voters from which another “not Romney” could draw.
When all is said and done, we might conclude that Romney had this nomination sewn up in September. By that point, all of the most impressive GOP figures who could have competed as “not Romney”—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan—had either declined to run or dropped out. You cannot beat someone with no one, after all, and if none of the actual alternatives to Romney is of sufficient stature to challenge him, then he will not be challenged.
Therein lies the enormous problem with our current presidential nomination system. It is uncontroversial to state that Mitt Romney is not really in step with the post-2008 Republican party, and yet he looks likely to win its nomination. Why? Because the rules of the game favor a candidate like him—somebody with insider connections, capable of raising tens of millions of dollars, spending more than a year toggling between Iowa and New Hampshire, and so on. The other candidates the current rules might also have favored dropped out or declined to run, so Romney is set to win by default.
Grassroots conservatives who are upset about this can complain about Mitt Romney’s alleged heterodoxies or the iron grip that the Beltway elite supposedly has over the system, but in the end they have only themselves to blame. Political parties, after all, are open institutions that anyone is free to join, and if the system is in disrepair it can only mean that Republican partisans—the grassroots—have failed to fix it. It is worth remembering as well that the current nomination system has been in place for nearly half a century, and despite a mountain of evidence from nearly a dozen presidential cycles that it is grossly inefficient, conservatives have spent no intellectual or political effort in reforming it. Apparently the chickens are coming home to roost.
Perhaps 2012 will be the year that the GOP grassroots finally takes a cue from the progressives of 100 years ago, who made a point of focusing on the political process in addition to public policy. Those early 20th-century liberals made a lasting mark: They understood that a broken process cannot yield good policy, so they backed significant, lasting reforms like the direct election of senators, recall petitions, ballot initiatives, and so on. It is high time that conservatives start thinking seriously about ways to fix our many broken political institutions, and our terrible candidate-selection process should rank at the top of the list.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.