Having spent much of 2011 writing incessantly about the Republican presidential nominating contest, I’m simultaneously relieved and saddened by the impending end of the “invisible primary” and the beginning, with next Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, of the actual voting. In the words of Jerry Garcia: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” And the oddest thing of all is that the outcome most often predicted by the laziest and most conventional-wisdom-bound analysts, the nomination of Mitt Romney, is now, according to InTrade, something on the order of an 80 percent probability.
If you choose to believe Romney’s nomination was determined long ago by a shadowy GOP Establishment that Republican voters follow like sheep, or that conservatives are setting aside their ideology in deference to Mitt’s superior “electability,” or that the party’s “base” understands they must “move to the center” to win close general elections—well, be my guest. But for my part, I think it’s reasonably clear that Romney’s nomination, if it indeed occurs, will be mainly attributable to a demolition derby similar to, and perhaps even weirder than, the one that haphazardly produced John McCain’s nomination in 2008. Romney’s own nomination may now be approaching inevitability, but let’s not forget that it was once very much preventable.
What’s clear is that a GOP electorate which has serially preferred such unlikely candidates as the hyper-extremist Michele Bachmann, the neophyte Herman Cain, and the ultimate retread Newt Gingrich, in some cases by very large margins in national and many state polls, has not suddenly been won over by the virtues of Mitt Romney. Indeed, despite Romney’s mild upward trend in support in the last few weeks, he is still the favorite candidate of no more than a fourth of Republicans other than in his second home, New Hampshire.
The long and short of it is that an essentially anti-Romney party (defined as its actual voting members, not elected officials, pundits or other elites) has failed either to unite behind or eliminate any of his rivals (with the exception of early casualty Tim Pawlenty). Bachmann was never going to be the nominee, yet she served Romney by croaking TimPaw’s candidacy and then locking down enough Christian Right support in Iowa to divide its ranks. Cain spectacularly self-destructed. Gingrich built his surge on a combination of debate performance—a fuel that could sustain him only so long as debates were held regularly—and the public’s temporary amnesia about his personal and political history. Ron Paul soaked up oxygen and activists in Iowa, the one and only state where the lay of the land and the nominating contest rules gave him a chance. And Rick Perry has run an amazingly inept campaign that serves to remind us all that high-paid political wizards often don’t know their asses from page eight when the chips are down, and that state-level success is not always transferable to the big stage.
This is not a narrative that suggests Romney’s nomination was inevitable. Here are just a few what-ifs that might have produced a very different end to the invisible primary:
1) What if Tim Pawlenty had not staked everything on the Iowa Straw Poll? The most important asset held by TimPaw’s low-energy campaign was potential. He was more than acceptable to every single element of the GOP, and he positioned himself almost ideally to benefit from the inevitable demise of other candidates. But he wasn’t around to reap the harvest when nearly all of them imploded, because he threw all his money into Ames and lost. What if he had kept his powder a bit dryer?
2) What if Mike Huckabee or [fill in the blank] had run? When Huck pulled back from a 2012 campaign in May, he was running first in the most recent national poll of Republicans that included his name, and also had the best favorable/unfavorable ratio in the field. Had he run, he would have been the instant and perhaps overwhelming front-runner in Iowa, where he beat Mitt Romney handily despite a vast financial disadvantage. Considering the heights deeply flawed candidates like Bachmann, Cain and Gingrich reached before their inevitable crashes, how high might Huckabee have flown, with his powerful appeal to evangelical Christians and his knack for gaining favorable “earned media,” even from liberals? And is there any chance Romney would have risked a second loss to Huck in Iowa? No, not one.
I won’t go through the exercise of examining what might have happened if other potential candidates—notably John Thune, Mike Pence, Haley Barbour, and Mitch Daniels—had run, but again, the appetite of Republican voters for even the most flawed non-Romney candidates suggests that any or all of them might have found traction.
3) What if Rick Perry had run a minimally competent campaign? Though it was only a few months ago, it’s hard to recall what a big, brawling, behemoth of a candidate Rick Perry looked to be when he announced in August. He had money. He had charm. He had that supposedly dazzling jobs record in Texas. He had Tea Party street cred, but the Establishment liked him, too. And so did GOP voters initially, rocketing him to the lead in polls just about everywhere other than New Hampshire. But then he stumbled serially in debates, deeply offending conservatives with his bleeding-heart position on immigration, and subsequently killing every potential comeback moment with gaffes. Exactly how hard was it for Team Perry to figure out that he had a big problem on immigration policy that simply required a well-timed flip-flop or at least some outspoken empathy with nativists? How difficult should it have been to convince their candidate that debate prep ought to occupy some of his time? And what, exactly, did Perry have to lose that kept him from running the kind of vicious, negative campaign against his rivals—any or all of them—that he was accustomed to running back home in Texas? It’s all a mystery, and one that helped Romney immensely.
4) What if anti-Romney conservatives had united behind anyone? The most abiding question is what might have happened if the conservatives who kept saying they wanted anybody other than Romney had figured out a way to identify that “anybody” and gotten behind that candidacy. Perhaps they thought Romney couldn’t win and they were free to back their personal favorites. Maybe they figured somebody else would take the risk of going medieval on him and taking him down. But in the end, even the famously disciplined shock troops of the Christian Right couldn’t make up their minds, and unless a final Iowa surge by Rick Santorum provides a lightning rod, they will go to the caucuses fatally divided when they might have been united.
But none of these what-ifs happened, and so at the end of the invisible primary Mitt Romney is the lucky fighter whose glass jaw somehow didn’t get hit. He’s even luckier that conservative hatred for Barack Obama virtually guarantees that most will loyally support him in the general election, after securing as many pledges of fidelity to the Holy Cause as they can extract. Whether the charmed life he’s live so far in 2012 deludes him into thinking it will be an easy win in November will go a long way towards determining his—and our—ultimate fate.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.