Michael Brendan Dougherty is absolutely right about the future of the Republican Party:
So my guess is that no shift of mood will fundamentally alter the Republican nominating process in 2016 or 2020. Instead the enormous electoral coalition that is the GOP will continue to see the kind slow grinding change of tectonic plates, rather than the kind of stormy change that pundits see in their mood.
There is one thing I would add to this. Michael doesn’t mention the new rules that RNC adopted this year to avoid a drawn-out nominating process in 2016. The new rules reinforce all of the structural factors that have resulted in the nomination of a relative moderate candidate, since they work in favor of the candidates with name recognition, funding, and support from party leaders. After McCain became the presumptive nominee very early in the primaries, there was a desire to prolong the contest to allow more states to hold meaningful primaries and to prevent the de facto front-runner from sweeping most of the early contests. When the new system worked just as it was supposed to, the RNC opted to return back to the bad, old, front-loaded system. The purpose of the new rules is to make it easier to impose a nominee on the party, which means that in the event of a Romney loss it is even less likely in 2016 that the Republican nominee will be a movement candidate.
That explains how relative moderate candidates keep winning, but more important is the reason why they keep winning nominations. As Michael notes, the “logic of winning is persuasive and when pressed, Republican voters don’t give conservative principles allegiance over winning.” What’s more, most Republican voters identify as moderate or “somewhat” conservative, so for many of them there is no direct conflict between choosing a more competitive, relative moderate candidate and their own views. The most ideological Republican voters tend to be least enthusiastic about the relative moderate candidate during the primaries, but because they are also extremely strong partisans they become his biggest fans during the general election. In other words, the partisan voters with the strongest reasons to object to the relative moderate on ideological grounds are often the least likely to sit out an election, and the less ideological voters in the primaries are least inclined to hold a candidate’s flaws against him. Relative moderate Republican candidates have long since mastered the art of jumping through the hoops that the ideological voters expect them to jump through while being able to claim that they are not simply ideological or factional candidates. A more ideological conservative candidate typically cannot do this and isn’t interested in trying, which is why the GOP never nominates one.