My prognostications for the Republican primary season have not been very good this cycle, though the arc of the race tracks expectations: Romney has the whiff of inevitability, however reluctant voters may be to make it easy for him. A religious right candidate has threatened to upset the coronation, but never quite succeeds. It’s a familiar enough script. What I didn’t consider was that Romney would have a harder time than John McCain — in part due to the extended primary season, and in part because Mitt’s sense of entitlement seems to offend Republican voters more than McCain’s “maverick” pose did. (One commenter on Twitter noted that Romney has a habit of bouncing back after he’s been counted out, which could spell trouble for Obama in November. The flipside is also true, of course: after every New Hampshire or Florida, Romney loses momentum again as voters decide to teach him a lesson in humility, which somehow never takes.)
I didn’t expect either Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich to run — or, at least, to run for long — and obviously I was only half-right. I also expected Mike Huckabee to run, and I’m baffled as to why he didn’t. Huck was poised to overtake Romney when Romney dropped out of the ’08 race. The ex-Arkansas governor had some fresh baggage for 2012, most notably a scandal in which a criminal whose sentence he had commuted shot and killed four police officers in 2009, but he still had what looked to me like a formidable profile. It’s easy to envision him winning every vote Santorum has so far won and a lot more besides — unlike Santorum, Huckabee wasn’t booted out of the last office he held in a landslide defeat, and unlike the tone-deaf Pennsylvanian, Huck had a folksiness that contrasted well with Romney’s iCandidate programming.
Did Huck think he couldn’t raise the money? Was he happier being a well-paid Fox News “personality” than a likely loser to Romney or Obama? That’s plausible enough. The campaign hasn’t been missing much for his absence — Bachmann and Santorum have covered his base — but from a fantasy political-football perspective, it’s surprising he stayed on the sidelines. (The other “what if” of this cycle isn’t Mitch Daniels, who probably would have fared as badly as Huntsman and Pawlenty, but Rand Paul. Would he have been able to do as well as his father and add to his total more of the Tea Party and mainstream Republican vote? I think Rand was smart not to do it: it’s too soon, Romney had too many fundamentals on his side, and the field was too volatile to guess how it would play out. But I’ve heard from more than one analyst who thinks Rand would have been, if not a shoo-in, a factor that would have severely complicated the picture for Romney.)