Ross Douthat tries to figure out why Trump is winning:
Until Donald Trump blew this model up. Yes, Trump has adopted conservative positions on various issues, but he’s done so in a transparently cynical fashion, constantly signaling that he doesn’t really believe in or understand the stance that he’s taking, constantly suggesting a willingness to bargain any principle away [bold mine-DL]. Except for immigration hawks, practically every ideological faction in the party regards Trump with mistrust, disgust, suspicion, fear. Pro-lifers, foreign-policy hawks, the Club for Growth, libertarians — nobody thinks Trump is really on their side. And yet he’s winning anyway.
That’s all true enough, but the same could be said and was said about Romney four years ago. Quite a few pundits were certain in 2011-2012 that Romney was so compromised by his record, especially on health care, that he couldn’t be the nominee despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Romney took more conventionally conservative positions than Trump has, but was even more cynical and pandering to every faction to get to that point. A large bloc of Republican voters didn’t really believe anything he told them, and like die-hard anti-Trump Republicans this year desperately rallied behind anyone they thought could stop him. Romney won in part because there simply weren’t enough Republican that held his record or his shape-shifting against him. We’re seeing much the same thing this year with the failure of the #NeverTrump forces.
Romney and Trump are very different in their temperaments and backgrounds, but in some important respects they fill similar roles in their respective election cycles. Like Trump, Romney won enough of the very conservative voters and a larger share of the “somewhat” conservative and moderate voters that make up the bulk of the primary electorates in most places. Like Trump, he was blessed with incompetent, divided opposition. Like Trump, he was the relative moderate in the field who normally wins the party nomination. Remember that Romney went from being a moderate-to-liberal Northeastern Republican to a party-line movement conservative in the space of a few years. The idea that Romney was a sincere or credible conservative was always laughable, but large numbers of Republicans went along with it. Most of the people now pledging undying hatred for Trump never even thought twice about whether they would support Romney, and the party rallied behind him as enthusiastically as it has behind any nominee.
In the end, it’s not that much of a mystery why Trump is winning. Romney showed him the way, and in the process showed that he probably didn’t have to do as much of the embarrassing pandering as he did. Republican voters wanted to win the 2012 presidential election more than anything, and mistakenly believed that Romney could do it. Because of that, they were prepared to put up with a thoroughly cynical, dishonest nominee who would say anything to get elected. Now most Republican voters have mistakenly convinced themselves that Trump can win, and many of them are making the same bargain that they made last time. As Douthat says, “they’re just in the grip of a strong delusion about Trump’s actual chances against Hillary Clinton.” The delusion may be stronger this time than it was four years ago, but it is the same refusal to acknowledge that the GOP is going to lose the election that we saw right up until Election Night in 2012. A party that believed that Romney was “supposed” to win but “blew it” will believe all sorts of strange things.