Today, the media and their pollsters are to blame for Mitt Romney's political troubles, according to Romney's fans. But if Romney does lose this year, blame will quickly shift to the Republican presidential nominee himself, his shortcomings, and his ability to articulate a conservative vision for the country. And the fallout from a Romney loss has the potential to reverberate through the Republican Party for a decade.
Had you told any Democratic political strategist a year ago that the unemployment rate in September 2012 would stand at 8.1 percent, he or she would have thrown up their hands in despair. President Obama, conventional wisdom held, would be headed to certain defeat.
But six weeks from Election Day, the picture is very different. Obama's approval ratings are on the rise, positive economic news hints at a recovery in the housing market and a slightly brighter jobs picture, and state-by-state polling shows Obama ahead of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in virtually every battleground state by significant margins. Even the dreaded enthusiasm gap, which showed Republican voters more likely to head to the polls than Democrats this year, is fading as more Democrats tune in.
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Conservative pundits have blamed a complicit media; even pollsters are suspect. Every poll's sample composition is scrutinized for the slightest perceived irregularity. But if Romney does lose, Republicans will be forced to contemplate how their candidate blew the best opportunity to defeat an incumbent president since 1980. And while anger focuses elsewhere now, the blame will surely shift to Romney himself, and his backers within the Washington Republican establishment, if he comes up short.
One can imagine the thought process: Romney, the moderate Massachusetts flip-flopper, was insufficiently clear in articulating the views of the conservative movement and allowed his own shortcomings to distract from the cause, both of beating Obama and of advancing the agenda.
The blame game has already begun in some quarters. "There are a lot of elitist Republicans who have spent several years telling us Mitt Romney was the only electable Republican," conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote on Tuesday. "They conspired to shut out others, tear down others, and prop up Romney with the electability argument. He is now not winning against the second coming of Jimmy Carter. They know there will be many conservatives, should Mitt Romney lose, who will not be satisfied until every bridge is burned with these jerks, hopefully with the elitist jerks tied to the bridge as it burns."
The schism within the Republican Party began during George W. Bush's administration ("They think the conservative movement will give them a pass just as the movement did with No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, Harriet Miers, TARP, etc.," Erickson added, ticking off Bush's greatest hits). The tea party movement, with its antispending message, stood in contrast with Bush's big-government conservatism, a virtual rebuke of party leadership, which the activist class believed had lost its way. If Romney loses, that rage at the establishment — Erickson's "elites" — will only grow.
The anger within the activist class has already caused political casualties, from Utah's Bob Bennett to Indiana's Richard Lugar. It has also forced incumbent Republicans to change their tune, in hopes of avoiding the same fate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the picture of the Republican establishment, has hired Rep. Ron Paul's campaign manager — one of the party's best field operatives, to be sure, but one who brings tea party credibility to a candidate clearly worried about his right flank in the meantime. Aides to Sen. Lamar Alexander have polled Tennessee's Republican voters several times, and they are notably relieved every time Alexander scores high approval ratings there. In the House, the most conservative wing of the Republican conference has gone from occupying the fringes with little influence to dominating the party's agenda.
If Republicans do lurch to the right, history suggests they will be vindicated in the near-term. The mid-term election under a second-term president is typically disastrous for the incumbent party as the six-year itch takes effect. Even if Republicans can't win back the Senate this year, their chances against the Democrats swept in by the Obama wave in 2008 will be strong.
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By 2016, Republicans searching for a presidential nominee may incorporate two lessons from the previous two election cycles into their decision: 2012 will hint that moderates unable to articulate the most conservative vision can't win nationally, and 2014 will show conservatives can win. That would seem to buoy any of the more conservative candidates who might run for president — and Rick Santorum has already shown up in Iowa twice since dropping out of the presidential race to campaign for other Republican causes.
The reinvention of the Republican Party that has been underway since the end of Bush's term is far from complete. Romney's loss would make the violence of the internal struggle all the more dramatic; it would steal influence from those arguing for a middle path, and hand influence to the conservative factions already on the ascent.
We ain't seen nothing yet.