There is great consternation among many Republicans over the prospects of a Mitt Romney nomination. I’ve heard various opinions, ranging from “I guess I can live with him” to “I really can’t stand him!” Among the latter camp, there is widespread sentiment out there that the inevitability of the Romney candidacy speaks to a festering divide between GOP elites and the grassroots – with the former controlling the nomination process and thus choosing Rockefeller-style Republicans like the former Massachusetts governor.
I am sympathetic to the concern among grassroots conservatives that the GOP elites have political beliefs that differ from the rank-and-file. That being said, I do not think this accounts for Romney's dominance. Instead, I think he will be the nominee largely because of good fortune: the number of potential, top-level challengers was unusually small this year, and the ones who could really have given him a run for his money have all dropped out or flamed out. Romney's moderation and flip-flopping were potential weakness for 2012, but there is nobody of sufficient stature out there to challenge him over them.
When we talk about stature, let's be as specific as we can. We can go back one hundred fifty years and see that candidates who win the nomination from then all the way through today seem to have the same bullet points on their résumés. This is no coincidence. Fifty years ago, political scientist Joseph Schlesinger argued that there was a structure of political opportunities in this country. You cannot go from being a dogcatcher to president; you must follow certain pathways.
Speaking in generalities, the “structure of political opportunity” for the presidency looks something like this:
Obviously, this is not to scale. The bottom two levels are much larger in real life than are represented here (if I drew it to scale the font in the top tiers would have been illegible!). The point is that you don’t just go from being an average Joe to president. You have to work you way up, and there are fewer spots and fiercer competitors on each new rung. Let's follow the trajectory to get a sense of who could have been a contender in 2012.
Once you get elected to office, your next step to the presidency is into what I have here called an "elite class," which historically has been made up of just three types of people: governors of large states, senators, and executive officials of high rank. That’s it.
In fact, check out this list of GOP nominees since the Civil War and you will see only a handful of exceptions:
What we see here is that all but three nominees have either been a high-ranking executive official (e.g. Ulysses S. Grant and Herbert Hoover), a governor of a large-ish state (e.g. Rutherford Hayes and George W. Bush) or a senator (e.g. Benjamin Harrison or John McCain). The only four exceptions have been James Garfield, who was chosen as a compromise candidate after the Half-Breeds and Stalwarts deadlocked in 1880, Alf Landon and Wendell Willkie. Those latter two won the nomination despite their slender qualifications because the ranks of GOP officeholders had been decimated by the Great Depression. So, they did not have the kind of challengers they would have faced 20 years prior.
Let’s keep moving up the pyramid to see who could practically have contested Romney’s nomination. Who is of “presidential timber" this time around?
First, executive officials. Military generals have long eschewed active pursuit of a presidential nomination, and in the modern era – with its year-long pre-nomination campaign – that means the candidacy of a hero like David Petraeus simply is a non-starter. Other executive branch Republicans in 2012 all have ties to George W. Bush (or, in the case of Jon Huntsman, Barack Obama), which practically disqualify them this time around. That leaves just governors of big states and senators as potentially being of presidential timber for 2012.
Being president requires vigor and energy, so party elders really aren’t capable of running. It also requires experience, and with the exception of Barack Obama, it’s just not realistic to expect somebody who has been in the Senate for less than a full term to win the presidency. So, let’s just count the senators who are under 65 years old and have been there for at lest one full term. We get:
Richard Burr, of North Carolina
Tom Coburn, of Oklahoma
Susan Collins, of Maine
Mike Crapo, of Idaho
John Cornyn, of Texas
Jim DeMint, of South Carolina
Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina
Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska
Jeff Sessions, of Alabama
Olympia Snowe, of Maine
John Thune, of South Dakota
David Vitter, of Louisiana
Collins, Graham, Murkowski, Snowe, and Vitter are all obviously not of presidential timber. The first four are far too moderate for the party and Vitter has been marred by scandal. I’d also exclude Burr because he is a back-bencher whose home state popularity is limited. Coburn, Cornyn, Crapo, and Sessions aren't really known outside the Senate and their home states, either. So, that practically leaves DeMint and Thune.
What about governors? Outside of 1936, you do not see small state governors win the GOP nomination, so let’s just look at Republican governors who have served a full term in the last decade from states with 11 or more electoral votes. We get:
Jeb Bush, of Florida
Charlie Crist, of Florida
Mitch Daniels, of Indiana
George Pataki, of New York
Sonny Perdue, of Georgia
Rick Perry, of Texas
Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts
Arnold Schwarzenegger, of California
Bob Taft, of Ohio
Let’s pare this list down. Bush has the wrong last name, Crist is no longer a Republican, Perdue is too obscure and somewhat controversial, Schwarzenegger is ineligible, and Taft is marred by scandal. So, that leaves Daniels, Pataki, Perry, and Romney.
Take these Senate and gubernatorial batches together, and this is all we have:
Out of the tens of millions of Republicans nationwide, I’d say only these six fit the minimum qualifications of “presidential timber,” and I still might also exclude Pataki for lack of public interest. And of these five or six, only two have tossed their hats in the ring. We can tweak the requirements on the margins here and there -- separating out the "presidential timber" was admittedly subjective -- but we'd still only have Romney and Perry as the declared, high-profile candidates. The other Republicans running this time around are quite far from having the sort of resume that usually qualifies one for the nomination.
This explains why Romney is at the top of the heap. It is not because of some advantage the heirs of Rockefeller retain over the conservative grassroots. Instead, it's just dumb luck. Romney’s position here is akin to being dealt a 5 and a 7, but drawing a straight on the river in a game of Texas Hold ‘em. He lucked out because relatively few Republicans were in that top tier with him, he lucked out again when five of his six competitors chose not to run, then he lucked out one more time when Perry turned out to be a dud. It's not the inherent moderation of the party elite that explains his advantage, it's just a perfect storm.