Ever since former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy fizzled after August’s Iowa Republican straw poll, I’ve been pretty convinced that Mitt Romney would end up winning the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination. I had moments of doubt, such as after his crushing loss to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina. If Romney had fallen short in the next event, in Florida, he might have been toast. Romney’s candidacy faced a second existential crisis in Michigan, but he pulled out a win there.
As convinced as I was along the way that Romney would take the prize, though, I was way wrong about how long and messy the process would be and how far out of position the primaries would pull him. Romney’s struggles will make for a more challenging general-election campaign than I guessed six months ago.
By my count, Romney has won 56 percent of the delegates who have been allocated in favor of one candidate or another. Rick Santorum has 26 percent; Gingrich, 13 percent; and Ron Paul, 5 percent. To reach the 1,144-delegate majority, Romney needs to win 49 percent of the remaining delegates. Santorum would need 74 percent, and Gingrich would need 85 percent. Even if Gingrich dropped out of the race today, polls show that his vote would split fairly evenly between Santorum and Romney. It’s hard to understand why. Logic suggests that Santorum, as the more conservative candidate, would get more. But two major national surveys have indicated that something more than ideology is guiding GOP voters’ choices. Simply put, no plausible arithmetic gets Santorum or Gingrich to 1,144 delegates that doesn’t involve Romney getting hit by a bus.
To be sure, Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul will likely stay in this race for a while longer, and they have every right to do so. Hillary Rodham Clinton did the same. She exercised the right to go through the final primaries four years ago, even after it was clear that Obama was going to reach a majority first. Edward Kennedy in 1980 is another example; he kept his bid against President Carter going all the way to the convention, even though it was apparent that Carter had wrapped up the nomination.
Before the 2012 GOP primary contest took shape, Sarah Palin was at the top of the polls. As the nomination battle continued, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney each held that spot at some point. No presidential leader board has ever had so many names at the top at various points in the campaign.
Republican voters seemed to have three different job requirements in mind as they checked out the contenders. Each prerequisite pointed toward a different candidate.
Primary voters wanted, to use the phrase of Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, a “full-spectrum conservative.” Coming out of the halcyon tea party period of 2009-10, they sought a nominee who was not only an unbridled, undiluted conservative but also expressed the passion, stridency, and—yes—anger, associated with the tea party movement. Santorum was closest to fitting this bill, even though he had been a member of the much-maligned Senate Appropriations Committee, had requested earmarks, and did trim his ideological sails occasionally.
Republicans were also looking for someone who could go toe-to-toe against President Obama in the fall debates. Thus, the 21 GOP debates have taken on a greater importance than such face-offs have in any other presidential-nomination processes. The series, airing sometimes more than twice a week, became almost like a television reality show for Republicans (I think it was GOP strategist Steve Schmitt who coined that term). In this competition, Gingrich was clearly the champion.
Finally, GOP voters wanted to pick the candidate who stood the best chance of beating Obama in November. A New York Times report from Mississippi recently described Magnolia State Republicans’ characterizations of the president as ranging “from vulgar to the apocalyptic.” GOP voters’ antipathy toward Obama is so great that electability had to loom large in this cycle. That job requirement clearly pointed toward Romney.
Of course, Romney’s money, superior organization, and talented staff made a huge difference as well; but watching Republicans agonizing over this selection and preferring so many different people at different points was extraordinary.
Increasingly, we can expect Romney to conduct a two-track campaign operation. He will fulfill the necessary obligations to mop up the nomination, showing respect for that process, while also starting to focus on independents and other key swing-voter groups. He will prepare for an eventual pivot back toward the center as soon as it is politically feasible to do so. If Santorum or Gingrich were in this position, they would do the same thing. The question remaining: Has Romney moved too far to the right to get back toward the center in time, and with enough grace, to make a plausible bid for independents?
This article appears in the March 24, 2012, edition of National Journal.