Alana Goodman sheds some light on why movement conservatives are so unhappy with the current field and Romney:

This election was also supposed to be about vindication. After the stinging loss of 2008, the conservative movement failed to shrivel away and die as predicted by liberal critics. Instead, we saw a resurgence of free-market populism in the form of the Tea Party, and the rise of new conservative icons like Paul Ryan?, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio?. The significance of the 2012 election isn’t just about the threat of another four years of Obama; it’s also about the knowledge that conservatives have a new crop of leaders who could rise to meet our current challenges.

But for whatever reason, the stars didn’t align. Conservatives now find themselves on track to nominate an acceptable but mediocre candidate, one they rejected in 2008. And while it may be mathematically possible for another candidate to jump in at this point, it’s way too late from a practical standpoint. Romney’s probably the best option Republicans have, and they’ll stick by him during the general election. But he may never live up to the high hopes conservatives had for this election, or for themselves.

This brings us back to the question of why relative moderates tend to win the Republican nomination. I agree with Matthew Miller’s argument that “the inability of conservatives to winnow their field” is an important factor that accounts for why the conservative vote is split among so many candidates. The delusion that 2012 was supposed to represent “vindication” for the conservative movement helps explain why conservatives didn’t settle on a single candidate much earlier and stick with him. Because of the entirely unearned 2010 midterm victory, many conservatives seem to have concluded that 2008 was an aberration, and because of the slow recovery there has been overconfidence about Republican prospects in the fall.

That lowered the bar considerably as far as the quality of the presidential candidates was concerned. Some of these underqualified candidates joined the race in the belief that 2012 was bound to be a Republican victory, and for that reason they didn’t want to “waste” that victory on an insufficiently pure candidate such as Romney. Because of this, candidates had a much higher ideological standard to meet. Flawed and compromised candidates might have been all right back in 2007 at the nadir of the Bush era, but not now. As a result, none of the declared candidates with any of the necessary experience could measure up, and those that could measure up were woefully unprepared for the office.

The higher expectations of activists and pundits allowed the fantasy of additional candidates to linger for months and months (and it still hasn’t been snuffed out), which delayed the consolidation of the conservative vote behind one or two of the declared candidates. On the whole, the fantasy candidates put forward by pundits are just as underqualified as some of the flops, or they have just as much baggage as the flawed candidates, and their entry into the race would simply compound the problem that conservatives have, which is that they have too many choices and no way to reach consensus on any one of them. At the same time, Romney’s health care record was widely perceived as a major or possibly fatal liability for his candidacy, but when it came time for voters to register their views it evidently wasn’t nearly as damaging as almost everyone believed. Conservatives did not rally behind any one candidate to oppose Romney months ago because I think many of them expected Romney to falter or implode long before this, so they thought they had the luxury of time to choose from among the alternatives. Romney didn’t implode, and conservatives frittered away valuable time on various long-shot and incompetent candidates. Because they couldn’t really believe that Romney would ever prevail, most anti-Romney conservatives didn’t do what would have been required to stop him from winning the nomination.