In other words, a candidate aligned with the Northeastern, moderate wing of the party has not won a nomination since 1960, and there is no reason to expect that to change, barring some kind of once-in-a-century realignment of the two political parties. Northeastern Republicans are now junior partners in the party coalition. They cannot deliver their own states anymore, as the Democrats dominate them all except New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; meanwhile, conservatives in the Midwest, South, and West can deliver their states, and so they now basically run the show. ~Jay Cost

This depends to some extent on how one broadly one wants to define the word aligned. One could seriously argue that the entire Bush dynasty and the presidential nominations in open contests that went with it prove this statement to be not just inaccurate, but quite misleading. Yes, both Bushes ran as Texans and identified themselves with Reagan’s politics, but both certainly started out as moderates by the standards of the party at the time. Bush had the advantage of having served as Vice President under Reagan, but one important reason that he had been selected to the ticket in 1980 was to provide the balance that only a prominent moderate Republican could supply. As a family, the Bushes are undeniably closely connected to the Northeast. Bush had the advantage of having McCain running to his left in 2000, which allowed him to do very little to satisfy conservatives during the primaries and still receive their support.

In 2008, McCain may have had a somewhat more conservative voting record than many of his critics liked to admit, but he was clearly perceived to be the more moderate major candidate in the field. That leaves us with just two unambiguous occasions when the candidate campaigning as the more conservative Republican prevailed in an open nominating contest. The relatively moderate Republicans in the field have had to prove that they are acceptable, but they have usually done this by mouthing the right phrases and selecting VP nominees that enthuse conservatives. After that, they are largely free to campaign and, if they win, to govern as they wish.

Romney’s case is unusual because he actually was a Northeastern moderate Republican in the mold of William Weld until 2005, but he has spent the last six years working to reinvent himself as a Sunbelt conservative. There’s no question that Romney lacks credibility in this role, but skeptics might have said (and did say) the same about Nixon, Dole, McCain, and both Bushes. Despite that, the previous runner-up or anointed front-runner received the nomination every time. Self-identified conservatives make up the vast majority of the GOP, but they do not dominate it quite as much as Cost claims. Romney’s credibility problem is harder to overcome, because the change in just the last few years has been so dramatic and clumsy, and because he adamantly refuses to abandon his signature achievement from his time in Massachusetts.

I am the first to be willing to point out Romney’s myriad flaws, I would be pleased if his second presidential bid failed disastrously. It would be most fitting if the conservatives that he so desperately courted for years decisively rejected him. To be perfectly clear, I shudder at the thought of Romney as the Republican nominee. To believe that he will not be the nominee, I would have to believe that Romney doesn’t have an overwhelming, built-in advantage in New Hampshire and Nevada, and that he won’t scoop up large numbers of former Giuliani and McCain voters in Florida, where he received 31% last time. Virtually every declared or likely 2012 candidate is to the right of Romney and intends to run well to his right, and the more of them that there are the easier it will be for Romney to emerge as the plausible, electable major candidate.

Conservative activists and pundits very much like to believe that they can weed out and reject candidates with glaring ideological flaws, but they overestimate the importance of ideology and policy positions in determining electoral success in a nominating contest. By all rights, McCain’s campaign should have been dead and buried in the summer of 2007, but it wasn’t. Romney’s health care liability is not anywhere as serious or as damaging to him as McCain’s immigration follies were. It is almost certain that conservative activists and pundits are overestimating the importance of Romney’s health care liability, and they are underestimating the extent to which Romney’s attention to economic issues matches up with the concerns of the electorate.