Reid Wilson imagines how the Republican Party will respond to a Romney defeat:
If Romney loses, that rage at the establishment — Erickson’s “elites” — will only grow.
Wilson is right that there will initially be a strong backlash against party leaders, but the effect of this backlash shouldn’t be overstated. A movement conservative backlash against an “establishment” responsible for “foisting” Romney upon them will suffer from a number of weaknesses. First, that isn’t how Romney won the nomination. Second, movement conservatives were instrumental in building up Romney as a candidate in 2008, giving his conservative transformation credibility, and promoting him as the acceptable alternative to McCain. Absent that concerted effort between 2006 and 2008, it is doubtful that Romney would have had enough success in the 2008 cycle to be the runner-up. I don’t doubt that many movement conservative activists would try to make everyone forget that this is what happened, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to separate themselves from their creation quite so easily.
Following the 2010 midterms, it might have seemed unimaginable that a candidate embodying everything the Tea Party theoretically rejects could become the party’s nominee, but that is what happened. Dole followed the ’94 midterm victory, and after Dole’s defeat the party turned to a governor reputed to be a moderate “reformer.” Considering how ultimately disastrous Bush was for the party’s political fortunes and credibility, one might think that there would be no chance that this pattern would repeat itself, but there are several reasons why it likely will.
All the structural factors Michael described earlier this week will still be in place in another three years when new presidential candidates would start announcing their bids. Those factors were: 1) typically one viable relative moderate candidate in the field; 2) a profusion of conservative candidates, encouraged by the growth of conservative media; 3) conservative candidates tend to be factional and split the conservative vote several ways; 4) winning the general election always matters more than anything else in presidential races.
Just as a divided conservative field helped make McCain and Romney nominees, there will likely be a similarly divided field in the future. If Romney loses, the 2016 field will likely be as large as the last one, and possibly larger. Some 2012 candidates will try again, and those that sat this cycle out will choose to seek the nomination. It is almost inevitable that there will be a push to recruit a Jeb Bush-like candidate (if not Bush himself), especially if Romney’s defeat is interpreted as a result of his views on immigration policy. The Republican desire to win the Presidency will only be stronger after a second Obama term, and the need to find a candidate able to win the election will trump other considerations. That doesn’t guarantee that the party will have an even more “centrist” nominee than Romney, but it is much more likely than the “sharp right turn” that many people seem to expect.