In may of 2011, I wrote the following on Facebook:
I mention this not because I stand by it 100%. I have doubts that Huck would have met the “acceptable alternative threshold), Pawlenty was even weaker than I had imagined, and Romney’s relationship with the establishment was (I found out after the election) much worse than I thought. But I bring this up because I want on the record that I am a believer in the establishmentarian advantage, I’m not one of those “anything could happen” people. I mention it in hopes of bolstering my credibility when I say that Jeb Bush has a long and difficult road to the nomination that Mitt Romney did not. Enough so that I’m not positive he will even be in the race come Iowa.
Michael Barone writes that Mitt Romney should not be considered the front-runner (link at bottom). I actually agree. He’s not substantively ahead in the polls (and is behind in many of them) and you shouldn’t call someone a front-runner unless they’re in the lead. But he remains the likely nominee. Barone’s writing, rather than refuting this point, actually supports it to an extent. He says that there are “only six” cases of the “next-in-line” (NIL) getting the nomination since the primary model was deployed in the 70’s, but that constitutes every non-incumbent nominee since the primary model was deployed in the 1970’s. There is not a single counter-example.
There are, as Barone points out, a number of “almost” counterexamples (Reagan in ’76, Alexander in ’96), but they remain “almosts” for a reason. It didn’t happen. The fact that the NIL nominee’s nomination was in doubt through the primary season actually supports the likelihood of a Romney nomination. Why? Because the second strongest argument against Romney’s nomination is that people aren’t really excited about him. But as past performance indicates, it doesn’t really matter. The next strongest argument is that Romney did something in Massachusetts that is very unpopular with GOP voters. This is the same party that nominated John McCain. Doesn’t matter.
I actually overstate my case somewhat. If a really strong candidate were to come forward, I don’t doubt that Romney could be unseated. In fact, if Huckabee runs, Romney shares the NIL title (though I think his establishment support will probably put him on top). But no candidate really comes to mind. All of them have substantial drawbacks. We’re likely seeing a replay of 2008, where all of the candidates have something that makes them “unacceptable” for some reason or another. The odd thing about 2008 was that it was full of candidates that I just couldn’t see winning the nomination. But one of them had to. The odder thing is that 2012 seems to be the exact same issue.
Absent Huckabee or a really strong candidate (no names come to mind, and I know a lot of names) entering, the only other way I see Romney losing is if it’s essentially a two-man race between Romney and Pawlenty. Pawlenty is not sufficiently exciting that he will stand out from a pack of candidates, but if voters are essentially given two choices, and one of them is the guy that ran the dry-run for Obamacare, I could see Pawlenty getting the nod. But that depends on a dearth of new candidates and a lack of traction among the people already running.
It’s a longshot. I say this as someone that is somewhat lukewarm about Romney and will likely support Pawlenty (or Daniels, if he runs). On the other hand, if Romney does pull out the nomination, I don’t think that the lack of enthusiasm for him (same goes for Pawlenty) means that he can’t win. John Kerry almost won, after all. As long as the GOP nominee meets a general threshold (which Romney, Pawlenty, Daniels, and Huckabee would all meet), the 2012 election will be a referendum on Obama more than anything else.
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