Ross Douthat reviews Romney’s success in becoming the nominee:
He was inevitable, yes — but only because he actually executed, something that plenty of presidential frontrunners in the past have conspicuously failed to do.
This would be more persuasive if there were one example of a Republican front-runner in the modern period who sought the nomination and failed. Front-running candidates can’t rely on just showing up to win, but there have never been any Republican presidential front-runners that failed to do this. Unless we redefine front-runner to mean “any politician who temporarily enjoys a national polling lead,” there have not been any failed Republican front-runners in the last forty years. Giuliani polled well in 2007, but once it came time to vote virtually no one supported him. The same goes for Rick Perry, who theoretically should have done much better than Giuliani and ended up doing even worse. It’s important to understand that McCain was always the front-runner in 2007, and Romney was always the front-runner in 2011. The desire for a more dramatic or interesting story drove many people to pretend otherwise for a little while, but that doesn’t change anything.
Douthat also overestimates how much a front-runner needs to execute well. To be the front-runner is to have the luxury of enormous advantages and room for error that other candidates don’t have. The fix was in for George W. Bush starting in 1999 in terms of fundraising, party backing, and organization. There was opposition to him in the primaries, but virtually no real competition, and what competition he did encounter was dispatched pretty quickly. McCain struggled a bit more as front-runner, but only because he ran a staggeringly inept campaign throughout most of 2007, alienated a huge part of the electorate with his position on that year’s immigration legislation, and ran out of money. Yet even McCain became the presumptive nominee with remarkably little serious competition.
Because of the changes to the primary calendar and the ability of interested billionaires to keep weak candidates afloat long after they should have dropped out, Romney had more difficulty in finally putting away his opposition. Despite this, he still faced very little serious competition, and any competitors he faced spent far more time fighting with one another than they did fighting with him. There were candidates in each of these cycles able to deny the front-runner a few victories here and there, but there wasn’t a challenger that would have been able to deprive the front-runner of the nomination. By all rights, Romney should have been the most likely of the three to fail in a GOP filled with ostensibly populist and conservative activists, and yet even his ability to secure the nomination was never seriously in doubt.
The truth is that many in the GOP had no problem with nominating Romney, and the fact that most of his die-hard opponents in the primary electorate weren’t able or willing to rally behind any of his competitors in a sustained way made it that much easier for Romney to defeat them in detail. If most Republicans had been as desperate to defeat Romney as Douthat claims, Romney would not have prevailed so easily and might not have prevailed at all. In addition to his advantages in funding and organization, Romney was inevitable this year because most Republicans considered him to be acceptable and enough were ready to vote for him that he suffered relatively few setbacks along the way.