James Ceaser repeats a familiar argument:
Moderates never imposed Mitt Romney on the party—that’s pure fiction. Romney became viable in large part because the most important conservative alternatives chose not to enter the race [bold mine-DL]. The conservatives who did run were never really plausible options.
The last point is mostly correct, but it’s the claim in the middle is the one that deserves to be called fiction. Many movement conservatives made Romney viable for a future race in 2008 when they embraced him as their preferred candidate, and then over the next three to four years Romney set about making himself the candidate most likely to win the 2012 nomination. The two main reasons “the most important conservative alternatives” remained on the sidelines were that they saw that Romney was a strong favorite for the nomination and/or they recognized that Obama wasn’t nearly as vulnerable as most Republicans assumed him to be. Had one of the fantasy candidates been lured in by their boosters, he would have been facing an uphill struggle the entire time, and even if he managed to knock off Romney he would likely have gone on to lose the general election anyway because of factors beyond his control. Each of the fantasy candidates was evidently far more aware of his own weaknesses and liabilities than their fans were.
The fantasy candidates stayed out of the race because they saw only too well that Romney had enormous advantages that an ideological interpretation of Republican primary politics was bound to miss. Romney didn’t become viable because they stayed out. They stayed out because he was viable. Indeed, he wasn’t just viable. He was always very likely to win, and it would have been surprising if a first-time presidential candidate had been able to best him. On top of all that, none of the fantasy candidates wanted to be the next Fred Thompson. Rick Perry, the one prominent Republican suckered into running last year, managed to outdo even Thompson in being an incredibly poor candidate. One problem with all the fantasy candidate hype was that no one could live up to the expectations that disgruntled anti-Romney voters had for their would-be heroes, and whoever succumbed to the entreaties to enter the race was bound to disappoint.
It’s true that moderates didn’t “impose” Romney on the party, but Romney’s support from self-described moderates was an important factor in winning the nomination. Movement conservatives had been only too ready to collaborate with Romney in endorsing his transformation four years ago, and by the time most of them wanted to abandon him he had already acquired credibility with enough Republican voters that it didn’t matter. As he was effectively the only relative moderate in the field, he was able to win large numbers of moderate and “somewhat” conservative voters, and between those two groups he was leading with the large majority of Republican voters in one state after another. Romney’s win was another confirmation that the candidates least trusted and most loathed by movement activists tend to do quite well with primary voters, and by the same token the candidates most beloved of movement activists tend to have limited appeal in larger electorates. That is another reason to conclude that none of the fantasy candidates would have been competitive enough to deprive Romney of the nomination: virtually all of them were activist and pundit favorites, and the fantasy candidates were activist favorites because they were narrowly appealing on ideological grounds.