Should Mitt Romney be the nominee of the Republican party for president in 2012? Perhaps. Should voters support him because he's the "inevitable" nominee? No.
For one thing, his nomination is evitable—perhaps all too evitable (see below). For another, we are a proud, self-governing people. We're sometimes even an obstreperous bunch—and a good thing it is for the cause of liberty. We often balk at yielding meekly to claims of inevitability. Here in America, we the people rule by electing. We don't bow to those anointed by pundits.
And Republicans in particular will be especially wary of proclamations of inevitability that come from a media who do not have conservatives' best interests at heart. Conservatives will resist declarations from a political class who have an interest in diminishing their range of choice. And wouldn't the GOP nominee—whether Mitt Romney or someone else—end up a stronger candidate if he doesn't coast to a supposedly inevitable nomination, but has to earn it (viz. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000)?
But really, you might ask—isn't Romney inevitable? And the answer is, really, no.
Fox News has polled likely GOP primary voters six times in the last five months. Here's Mitt Romney's trend line of support: July 17-19, 26 percent; August 7-9, 26 percent; August 29-31, 22 percent; September 25-27, 23 percent; October 23-25, 20 percent; November 13-15, 22 percent. Not a tidal wave of irresistibly rising acclamation.
Nor has Romney always been in the lead. In three of the four most recent polls, he's trailed another candidate. The good news for Romney—the very good news for Romney—is that it's been a different person each time. Rick Perry, who was at 29 percent at the end of August, has collapsed to 7 percent in the latest survey. Herman Cain, who polled at 24 percent a month ago, is now at 15 percent. If Newt Gingrich, who now edges Romney out at 23 percent, follows in the path of Perry and Cain (and Michele Bachmann, to some degree, before them), then Romney may well win as the last man standing.
But that's a big if. Gingrich may not follow the Bachmann-Perry-Cain trajectory of rapid rise and rapid fall. He is a far more experienced national politician than they. He's a familiar figure. It's not as if, like Bachmann, he's making a favorable first impression that will then be qualified, or, like Perry, that the idea of the candidate will be very different from the reality, or that, like Herman Cain, he seems a breath of fresh air. Voters who have warmed to Gingrich in the last few months could of course still have second thoughts, and his rise may stall and reverse. It would indeed be surprising if he doesn't now hit some bumps in the road. But he could be formidable.
And the massive fact of the race so far is that, as various candidates have shed supporters, those voters have looked for someone else to go to other than Romney. One could almost say they're going out of their way not to go to Romney. That could well change, of course. Romney will have the resources and the standing to make his case forcefully to these voters. And Romney defeats President Obama in the latest Fox poll, 44-42, while Gingrich trails, 46-41. That will be an important point in Romney's favor among GOP primary voters eager to defeat President Obama. Can Gingrich come close to evening up the poll results in the Obama match-up? That's something to watch for. And more generally, can he rise to the occasion as a co-frontrunner, or will he fumble the ball? Will his famous baggage just prove too heavy? Who knows? We don't think the inevitable answer is yes.
And even if Gingrich fades, let's not assume it's over. Bachmann and Santorum could still have a run in Iowa. If they continue to trail badly, it's not out of the question that someone else could still present himself in mid-December to the citizens of Iowa (Hi there, Mike Huckabee! Hello, Sarah Palin!). Or, if Iowa (January 3), New Hampshire (January 10) and South Carolina (January 21) produce fragmented results, and the state of the race is disheartening to Republicans, a late January entry by another candidate isn't out of the question, either. Couldn't Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio win the January 31 Florida primary as a write-in candidate in such circumstances?
With a splintered field in a turbulent time in an Internet age, there are more possible outcomes in today's politics than are dreamt of in the philosophy of inevitability.