Conor Friedersdorf offers his list of reasons why Romney has effectively prevailed in the nomination contest. Here is the first one:
For various reasons, candidates who might’ve bested him in the nominating contest, like Mitch Daniels, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie, decided against running this year.
I’m going to stop him right there. Even assuming that one or more of the fantasy candidates had decided to run long before 2011, it has been to Romney’s advantage when there are more candidates in the field. Would Jeb Bush have been less vulnerable to Romney’s immigration attacks than Rick Perry? It’s hard to see how. Not only is Bush more liberal on immigration than Perry, but his last name immediately conjures up memories of his brother’s immigration policy, which is one of the things many Republicans liked least about him. Bush would have been a more formidable opponent than Romney’s other rivals, but he is probably the only one of the fantasy candidates who could have won this year. It is likely that a Bush challenge would have made it easier for Romney to win over suspicious conservatives. This would have been similar to the way that McCain’s challenge to George W. Bush in 2000 helped drive conservatives into Bush’s arms. The possibility of a Daniels campaign is one that generated a lot of enthusiasm among wonkish types and pundits, but that was about it.
Conor discusses the weaknesses of the Huntsman campaign to explain Romney’s success, but leaves out the most important part:
Jon Huntsman, whose governing record in Utah is more conservative than Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts record, was never able to win any support from the GOP’s conservative base, because its voters ultimately care less about the substance of a candidate’s record than their capacity for throwing out red meat rhetoric and signaling tribal solidarity with culture cues and dog whistles.
The substance of Huntsman’s record and his campaign agenda were more or less irrelevant once he had accepted the ambassadorial post in Beijing from Obama. When Republicans are competing to demonstrate how much they reject and oppose everything connected to Obama, this was fatal to Huntsman’s political ambitions inside the GOP. Huntsman ran a bafflingly bad campaign, but what has to be understood is that his campaign’s failure had already been guaranteed by a decision that he took years before he decided to run. Conor is right about the role of tribal solidarity, but he overlooked the most important thing Huntsman did that made it impossible for most Republicans to accept him.
Conor is right that the Republican primary electorate tends to support the relative moderate in crowded presidential fields, and there’s no question that conservatives are now reaping what they sowed in 2008 when they rallied behind Romney in their failed effort to stop McCain. Much of the conservative movement helped create Romney as a viable Republican presidential candidate, and the outcome of this year’s contest is the result. That should be a warning to movement conservatives in the future that desperately backing the opportunist of the day to try to achieve a short-term victory is not worth the price.