Unless pollsters are all accidentally calling voters in other state, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is headed toward a fairly big victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary on Tuesday.
The weekend’s debates did nothing to alter the seeming inevitability of his nomination. Though Romney’s lead in South Carolina is smaller, national Gallup tracking polls show him gaining. The five-night moving averages through Sunday show him with 30 percent support, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum a distant second at 18 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is third with 17 percent and steadily dropping. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is mired at 6 percent.
It’s hardly coincidental that each of the last five Republican nominees — going back to Ronald Reagan in 1980 — won the South Carolina primary and either the New Hampshire primary or the Iowa caucuses. That statistic can be attributed to momentum or signify that presidential contenders deprived of early victories simply wither and die on the vine. Wins beget money and losses shrink fundraising.
Romney is the only contender with anything remotely resembling the kind of campaign that usually wins nominations, and his odds of clinching the nod are extremely high — pretty close to a sure thing.
Yet, not much makes him such a prohibitive favorite. He has benefited from the insufficiencies of his rivals. This race would have been considerably more interesting if former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had gained traction. Runs by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush might also have made it more exciting. Maybe Romney would have won anyway, but with nowhere near the sense of certainty.
Some say Pawlenty erred in dropping out of the race after his disappointing showing in the summer’s Iowa straw poll. It certainly appeared, though, that the flow of money coming into the Pawlenty campaign began drying up earlier, particularly after he pulled his punches in attacks on Romney in the early debates. Had Pawlenty gone after Romney’s jugular or persevered after the disappointment in Ames, he may or may not have raised the money to continue as a viable candidate.
Another “what if” to consider is how things might have differed had Perry entered the race much earlier than August. Although never poised to be a great candidate, he certainly is closer to the Republican Party’s ideological center of gravity than Romney. He also didn’t come to the table with Gingrich’s baggage.
Assuming Romney ends up the nominee, many will say it's proof that Republicans anoint their candidates, nominating whoever is next in line without open and full competition. To be sure, Republican voters — in presidential nomination fights — historically are not as open to new faces as Democrats have been. But arguably in this campaign, they have been more open than ever. At various stages, quite a few contenders who were not household names had a shot. But each came up short.
In 2011, the Republican Party desperately wanted someone far more conservative and stylistically more combative than Romney. Their desire was quashed by the shortcomings of their options. There’s no question that Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman, pizza magnate Herman Cain, Perry, and Gingrich had their shots—with only the Georgian still standing, and just barely.
Romney is remarkably sure-footed on the campaign trail. He raises tons of money and assembled a first-class campaign. All of these are necessary elements, but not sufficient for him to win the 2012 GOP nomination. The real key is the lack of a strong conservative alternative.
Various rump groups of conservative leaders and financiers are meeting around the country attempting to settle on a single alternative to Romney. This is the political equivalent of closing the barn door after the horses have left. Instead, they might ask why they couldn’t come up with a stronger candidate representing the GOP’s dominant wing. And the tea party might ask: Why didn’t it have more juice in the GOP nomination fight?