07 March 2011

Will Romney be the nominee?

Daniel Larison thinks so, as does Jim Antle.

I continue to be skeptical.

Larison and Antle's points are well-taken, and are some of the same that I've made before in explaining why Sarah Palin has little chance at the Republican nomination.

First, Republican voters tend to gravitate toward candidates who are electable, and there is a perception -- one that I believe is incorrect, frankly -- that Romney will have a good chance of knocking off the incumbent president in the general election. (My theory: If he struggled to convince conservative voters that he was a better alternative than John McCain -- who talk radio and the base loathed -- and Mike Huckabee -- whose record as a profligate spender in Arkansas was outrageous -- how will Romney possibly convince the general electorate that he is a preferable alternative to a sitting president who remains personally quite popular?)

Second, the establishment vote is a critical in a Republican primary, and even in 2008, Romney had considerable establishment support. Romney not only has a ton of money of his own, but also has the backing of Republican elites who are so often kingmakers.

Third, it seems to be Romney's turn. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain all came in second in a particular Republican primary, and in the next open primary cycle, they became the nominee. Romney effectively finished second to McCain in 2008 (he was second in total delegates when he suspended his campaign; Huckabee, who stayed in the race longer, technically ended up with more delegates), and there's a very clear perception that he's the frontrunner.

On the other hand, I believe Larison especially glosses over Romney's flaws.

This idea of "Romney as frontrunner," while admittedly borne out by polling data, seems to ignore the lessons of 2008.

As noted above, Romney had great difficulty connecting with Republican primarygoers in 2008, and there's no reason to think he won't have the same problem in 2012. Romney will have to battle with Tim Pawlenty -- who probably would have won the nomination in 2008 had he ran, has a clear conservative record of governance in a blue state, and is unfailingly likable; Newt Gingrich, who led the party for a decade and whose name recognition is off the charts; Haley Barbour, who will have money and establishment support of his own if he runs; Mitch Daniels, whose "charisma of competence" is only exceeded by his sterling record as Indiana governor; and yes, his old nemesis Huckabee. This will be a deeper field than Romney faced in 2008. While Barbour and Daniels have vacillated on running, it's quite clear that Pawlenty and Gingrich will be all-in. Both of these men are exceedingly more conservative candidates than either McCain or Huckabee, Romney's two chief rivals in 2008.

Second, Romney's incessant, embarrassing pandering has left the moderate vote up for grabs. Given the endorsements of Daniels by the likes of George Will, Ross Douthat and David Brooks, it's clear that the more moderate, pro-competence wing of the party will rally around the Indiana governor should he run. (Now, granted, Daniels co-opting this segment of the party will not be because Daniels is particularly moderate -- as we've noted here, he might actually be the most conservative guy in the field -- but rather because he has steadfastly refused to pander.) Based on his outrageous statements about Obamacare, his demagoguing of every major foreign policy issue and his new book full of red meat, Romney is clearly making a play for the conservative vote -- but this is the same group that largely backed him in 2008. The bottom line is that Romney won't have the conservative/establishment vote all to himself this time around -- he will have to battle with Pawlenty (who is believable and genuine) and Gingrich (who, if his political instincts get the better of him, will tear into Romney even more vociferously than did Huckabee).

Two sub-points here:

One, Romney would have been much better positioned in 2012 if he had marketed himself post-2008 as the serious, thoughtful venture capitalist, not some sort of right-wing panderer obsessed with calling the president names. I, personally -- though I find his stunning lack of principle offensive -- may have swallowed my bad feelings from 2008 and supported him. But because he has swung so hard and fast to the right, I have no interest whatsoever in voting for the man.

Two, point one cannot be overstated. Despite the rhetoric from the Limbaugh/Palin/Fox News noise machine, the moderate conservative vote is alive, well and up for grabs. How else to explain John McCain's 2008 candidacy? If Daniels co-opts the McCain vote and Romney has to split the conservative vote three ways with Pawlenty and Gingrich (or, four ways with Palin/Barbour/Huckabee), Romney's math becomes quite problematic.

Next: Romney didn't have to deal with the specter of his awful healthcare bill last time around. Romney simply isn't a credible opponent to Obamacare, since, as we and others have noted ad nauseum, the central features of Obamacare and Romneycare are strikingly similar.

Fourth, Romney's icy personality and incessant demagoguery make him an easy target for his primary opponents, simply because very few of them seem to like him personally.

Quite frankly, I think Romney would lose convincingly to Obama in the general election for a number of reasons, including but not limited to (i) the power of the incumbency; (ii) Romney's inability -- unlike, say, Daniels -- to convincingly make the case for conservatism; and (iii) his phoniness.

Despite Romney's massive cash advantage in 2008, most Republican voters saw right through his facade and voted for the one candidate who gave them a chance against the Obama tidal wave.

Much like 2008, a vote for Romney in the 2012 primaries is a vote for almost-certain defeat in November.

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