Ed Kilgore writes that Romney’s inevitability is the result of a number of accidents. He asks what would have happened if Huckabee or another well-known Republican had run this year:
I won’t go through the exercise of examining what might have happened if other potential candidates—notably John Thune, Mike Pence, Haley Barbour, and Mitch Daniels—had run, but again, the appetite of Republican voters for even the most flawed non-Romney candidates suggests that any or all of them might have found traction.
I don’t see how anyone makes a case for the candidacies of any of the people that Kilgore lists here except for Huckabee. Each politician’s decision not to oppose Romney has to tell us something about the political landscape and Romney’s relative strengths. Romney’s inevitability as the nominee is partly a product of the shallowness of the Republican bench. When a nationally unknown John Thune and a member of the House are being put forward seriously as some of the candidates who-might-have-been, that just underscores how weak Romney’s competition was from the start. Consider Thune for a moment. His main claim to fame in recent years was his vote for the TARP, which he followed up with a very Romney-like disavowal of the program he supported. Speculation about a Thune bid had a lot more to do with the needs of bored journalists in 2009 than it did with his potential as a presidential candidate.
I agree that Huckabee would have had a significant impact on the race, but the real question is whether Huckabee could have defeated Romney for the nomination. It’s not clear to me how he would have done that. Huckabee’s appeal last time was limited mainly to evangelicals and Southerners. Outside culturally Southern states and states where evangelicals were numerous and politically engaged, Huckabee struggled to go anywhere. Granted, Huckabee spent the last several years presenting himself to a national audience, so it’s possible he might have overcome some of these obstacles, but in the end Republican donors and many non-evangelical activists were going to shun his candidacy just as they did the first time. Huckabee won some impressive victories with a shoe-string campaign in 2008, but it’s not obvious that he would have had a campaign organization capable of defeating Romney this time around. It’s not as if economic conservatives were going to forgive him on his fiscal record, and many of them recoiled in horror from his pseudo-populist rhetoric. Had he run, he would have been the one to knock out Pawlenty, whose bid (if it happened at all) would have been even more pointless with both Huckabee and Romney in the race. Huckabee would have done more to consolidate anti-Romney support behind one candidate earlier, but he would have driven many voters into Romney’s arms.
Likewise, asking what might have happened if Pawlenty had not staked so much on the Ames straw poll misses the point. Iowa was central to Pawlenty’s campaign strategy, and how he performed there was perceived to be even more important because he came from a neighboring state and was supposed to have an advantage as a Midwesterner. How could he have expected his candidacy to be taken seriously (and continue to be funded) if he did not make every effort to win the straw poll? The reality was that Pawlenty spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate save Santorum, and he generated very little interest. Kilgore holds that the “most important asset held by TimPaw’s low-energy campaign was potential,” but for whatever reason the people in Iowa he encountered didn’t see it. Yes, on paper, he was “more than acceptable to every single element of the GOP,” but that never translated into real support for the living, breathing Pawlenty. The main reason that Pawlenty was treated as a major candidate from the beginning was that he was merely acceptable to every faction and Romney supposedly wasn’t. For that reason, Pawlenty ran a bland, utterly conventional campaign designed to make him look like the natural replacement for Romney, which had the effect of alienating the voters who couldn’t stand Romney without winning over any of Romney’s supporters. Then again, Romney’s supporters weren’t looking for a replacement. Pawlenty ran on the assumption that Republicans were eager to have someone pushing the same agenda as Romney without Romney’s baggage, and that assumption appears to have been wrong.
When people point out how long Romney has been running for the Republican nomination, it is usually by way of mocking him for how low his polling has been. “He’s been running for five years, and he can’t ever get above 25%!” I enjoy mocking Romney as much as anyone, but this criticism seems weak to me. After all, he has been running for the nomination for five years, which might just mean that he has some significant built-in advantages over his main rivals. Except for Paul, all of Romney’s other rivals have never done this before, and several of them showed no interest in doing the real work of organization that candidates have to do to be successful. Observers of the Paul campaign agree that his latest effort is much more professional and effective than the first, which was characterized by a lot of enthusiasm and much less discipline and organization. It seems reasonable that Romney has also learned a few things over the years, and together with the organization and funds that he already had last time that might make a significant difference.
Strictly speaking, nothing, including Romney’s nomination, is ever really inevitable. It’s possible that the vast majority of Republicans could have rallied together to stop Romney’s candidacy in its tracks. However, that assumes that most Republicans dislike Romney, and the opposite is the case. This may be because most Republicans aren’t very familiar with Romney, but most still view him favorably. Romney’s ideologically compromised record might have undone him, but that assumes that most Republican primary voters base their votes on ideology, and that isn’t true, either. A lot of people took for granted Romney’s health care liability was fatal or at least very damaging, but that assumed that voters actually cared about a state-level individual mandate in Massachusetts that has no obvious effect on them, and beyond a limited number of activists and ideological voters there was never much evidence that it did matter to anyone. In short, a lot of what we might call lazy conventional wisdom about Romney informed the judgment that Romney wouldn’t or couldn’t be the nominee, and that judgment is looking worse all the time. It remains true that Romney shouldn’t be the nominee, and Republicans will regret nominating him, but it seems extremely unlikely at this stage that anything is going to prevent it from happening.