MANCHESTER, N.H.—Conservatives have never enjoyed a more commanding position in the Republican Party. In Congress, they dominate the House and Senate caucuses. At the grassroots, they provided the shock troops for the tea party uprising that powered the GOP’s 2010 landslide. They supply almost all of the leading voices on the talk-radio and Fox News circuit that provides the Right with its powerful system of perpetual mobilization. More than three-fifths of Republican primary voters in 2008 identified with the conservative label. And polls show that the vast majority of Republican voters coalesce around conservative positions on most key issues, especially those relating to shrinking government. “This is a real doctrinaire set of conservatives who are conservative in all respects and with little variance,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
And yet, after Mitt Romney’s decisive victory in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the GOP for the second consecutive presidential election appears poised to pick a nominee whom much of its conservative vanguard deeply distrusts. What’s more, unless conservatives can defy the odds and unify for an effective stand against him next Saturday in South Carolina, Romney will be positioned to win the nomination even more easily than John McCain did in 2008, despite the great skepticism that McCain also faced from movement conservatives. Romney, in fact, could be poised to capture the nomination more easily than any previous contender in a contested GOP race since the modern primary system took form in 1980.
For the Right, all of this has come out of left field. Many of the movement’s leading voices—from The Wall Street Journal editorial page to talk-show host Rush Limbaugh to the influential RedState—have spent years disparaging the former Massachusetts governor as a “political opportunist” with a “surprisingly timid” economic plan and an unreliable ideological compass. FreedomWorks, another leading conservative group, picketed a tea party rally in New Hampshire last fall just because it allowed Romney to speak.
Efforts to stop Romney are still swirling on the right. After his Iowa victory, both The Weekly Standard magazine and The Journal’s editorial page urged Republican voters to prevent a quick Romney “coronation,” as The Journal put it. Dozens of influential cultural conservative leaders are meeting this weekend in Texas to determine if they can unify behind a candidate, presumably an alternative to Romney, who faces widespread suspicion in those circles over both his Mormon religion and his commitment to socially conservative causes like banning abortion. The candidates chasing him are barnstorming South Carolina this week, trying to mobilize conservative voters against a victory for the front-runner that would carry him to the brink of the nomination.
South Carolina might trip Romney and extend the race. Yet even those engaged in these efforts are struggling to see how they might plausibly overcome his advantages. The Journal’s editorial the morning after New Hampshire seemed much more resigned to a Romney victory than its call to arms after Iowa; on Wednesday, Limbaugh, while still otherwise critical of Romney, described his Tuesday-night victory remarks as maybe “the best speech he’s ever given.” Meanwhile, the attacks from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry portraying Romney as a corporate raider “looting” companies have inspired Limbaugh and other conservatives to rally to his defense.
Those are all the sounds of Romney’s most intractable critics beginning to come to terms with what looks like the inevitable. “I think South Carolina becomes the last stand for conservatives,” says Erick Erickson, editor of RedState. “And the fort does get run over by Romney.… There are no good options for conservatives right now.”
BEHIND ROMNEY’S ROMP
How did a candidate who faces such skepticism among so many conservatives slice through the field so easily in a party that now leans so far to the right? Polls through 2011 consistently found that Romney faced substantial resistance among the party’s most ideologically ardent elements, particularly voters who identified with the tea party or as evangelical Christians. Even just last week in Iowa, Romney won only one in seven of caucus-goers who called themselves either strong tea party supporters or evangelicals. (In New Hampshire, his home turf, he carried both groups as part of his decisive sweep.)
But none of Romney’s rivals has demonstrated the full set of attributes required to consolidate those voters against him. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has not held office since he was routed in his Senate reelection race in 2006; Michele Bachmann has functioned as a gadfly, not a legislative leader; Ron Paul has been such a fringe figure in the House that he makes Bachmann look like Sam Rayburn. Herman Cain has never been elected (or as it turned out vetted for scandal).
This article appears in the January 14, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.