Jim Antle reviews the 2012 primary season and considers the obstacles to nominating a conservative insurgent:
That is something a Tea Party candidate for the presidential nomination will have to resolve early because a divided conservative vote spells doom for a conservative insurgent.
The problem for Tea Party and insurgent presidential candidates is that this may not be something that any one of them can “resolve early.” For all the complaints about the missing fantasy candidates, the GOP field was already overflowing with alternatives to Romney. Had one or more of the fantasy candidates joined the race, the conservative vote would have been split up even more. One reason for this is the large size of the overall conservative vote in the GOP primary electorate, which makes it harder for any one candidate to appeal to enough of all kinds of conservatives. Another unexpected reason is the ideological uniformity inside the party on most issues. When even the relative moderate front-runner publicly embraces the movement and party line on virtually everything, the attacks of most conservative insurgents are blunted, and there are fewer incentives for conservative voters to take a chance on lesser-known insurgent candidates. When voters are being asked to choose between two versions of Bushism, as they have been asked during the last two months, there is no obvious reason why they should go with the one with fewer financial resources and far worse organization.
When insurgents have to start presenting themselves as the “real” or “consistent” conservative (whether that is an entirely true claim or not), because the front-runner has already adopted all the approved positions, they are already conceding that the obvious differences between them and the front-runner are few and far between. For less conservative and less ideological voters, who still hold the balance of power in the nominating contest, it may be enough for the front-runner to pay lip service on many of these issues. His lack of consistency or credibility or zeal is less important to them, which is why the front-runner tends to do best among these voters.
After all, the 2012 contest between Santorum and Romney isn’t all that similar to Goldwater vs. Rockefeller, Reagan vs. Ford, or Reagan vs. Bush. As much as Santorum might have wanted to portray himself as a challenger similar to Reagan in 1976, there is virtually no contemporary issue that divides Santorum and Romney. 1964, 1976 and 1980 were all nomination contests in which there was a clear split between two significantly different kinds of Republicans that opposed one another on grounds of policy and political principles. To some extent, it mattered which candidate became the nominee. There are a few differences between Santorum and Romney in the positions they take, but not very many, and they aren’t as significant as the differences that characterized previous moderate-conservative contests. For the most part, the same was true of almost all of Romney’s challengers, except Ron Paul, who had significant disagreements with the rest of the field on many issues.
There were so many challengers to Romney because of the belief that Romney would struggle to win over a predominantly conservative electorate. Rick Perry seemed to have prepared for the campaign on the assumption that all he had to do was show up, and that was all that he did. Paradoxically, the dominance of the GOP by self-styled conservatives makes it harder for any one challenger to rally large numbers of conservatives behind him when there are still many other options available. That keeps the conservative vote split long enough to allow the front-runner to prevail. I’m not sure that this is a pattern that any one candidate has the ability to break. If anything, 2016 could be even worse on the Republican side if Romney loses this fall, because most or all of this year’s fantasy candidates could launch presidential bids, other politicians not mentioned as fantasy candidates this time might run, and there will be another crop of politicians flogging their books and auditioning for their own television shows. If that happened, instead of an eventual nominee who wins 35-40% of the vote there might be one who wins with 25-30%.