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).
There are two partial exceptions to this pattern. One is Newt Gingrich—but even he has not held office since 1998, when he resigned as House speaker amid a revolt from fellow Republicans over his mercurial management style. The other is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose unwavering social and fiscal conservatism and biting rhetoric probably best positioned him for the part but whose initial performances showed him ill-prepared for such a big stage.
For many Republicans, none of these alternatives crossed the threshold as a credible president. At a Romney rally in the Rochester, N.H. opera house last Sunday, Jeff Hilke, a Portsmouth day trader, seemed almost perplexed when asked why he had chosen Romney over his rivals. “He is just far beyond any of the other candidates—he comes across as very presidential,” Hilke says. “It’s nice the media is portraying Gingrich or Santorum as plausible nominees, but I just don’t see it. Good guys, good messengers, but I just don’t see a president there.” In both the Iowa and New Hampshire exit polls, Romney easily carried voters who said their top concern was electability.
Romney’s rivals faced another big hurdle. Apart perhaps from Perry and Bachmann, each of whom quickly faded, none has emerged organically from the ferocious antigovernment backlash that emerged during the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency and then erupted early in Obama’s. None of the heroes of that movement—from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin—felt ready to run in 2012, either because they were too young or too recently elected, or both. Other veteran Republicans potentially attractive to those voters also passed, including Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Republican voters were left to choose from a field filled by an older generation that many of the newer activists view with suspicion. “In the next primary election, whenever it is, you’ve got a real group of potential candidates who are truly conservative and pro-growth,” says Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a leading economic conservative group. “It is an evolution. Republicans went bad, and now [the movement] is getting better, and it’s going up through the House and Senate, but it hasn’t produced a national leader yet.”
Largely because of this generational mismatch, all of the remaining contenders faced their own doubts from a conservative movement already inclined to distrust the party’s leadership. From the 1990s through Bush’s second term, many Republicans tried to reach beyond conservative circles to court new constituencies with center-left positions on issues such as immigration, climate change, and health care reform. But the conservative backlash that exploded under Obama has produced a back-to-basics demand in the GOP that has rendered those views uniformly suspect. That has compelled not only Romney but also Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Tim Pawlenty (before he quit the race) to renounce or apologize for an extended list of earlier beliefs. Even Perry was stung by his embrace of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants—an idea that was not nearly so controversial when he signed it into law.
Romney’s own apostasies (such as support for an individual health care mandate) seemed less conspicuous against the backdrop of these other ideological blemishes. Once Perry imploded, none of Romney potential rivals stirred genuine passion among the institutional or grassroots Right. The Club for Growth’s economic “white papers” on the field reeked of disappointment not only with Romney but also Gingrich, Santorum, and Huntsman. “Everybody asks themselves that question—why don’t we have an obvious choice that everyone can get solidly behind and get enthusiastic about?” says Chocola, a former House member from Indiana. “I wish I had that answer.”
That division helped Romney win Iowa last week despite his meager performance with tea party and evangelical Christian voters: Conservatives fragmented their votes across all of the alternatives—Santorum, Paul, Perry, Gingrich, and Bachmann. Since then, the Right has made little progress toward coalescing. While The Weekly Standard cheered Santorum’s breakthrough, and conservative activist Gary Bauer endorsed him, The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial pointedly questioning his economic plan and Erickson at RedState flatly denounced him as a “Big Government conservative.”
After Romney’s resounding New Hampshire win, his critics recognize that any last-ditch hope of stopping him will require rapid consolidation around a single conservative opponent. But that seems even less possible after the most likely rallying points—Santorum, Gingrich, or Perry—turned in such dismal showings in the Granite State. The highest-profile attempt to forge a united front is the social-conservative gathering this weekend in Texas. One participant, however, says the same disagreements that have prevented unified action so far will likely doom this attempt as well. “I think it will be a useful meeting,” the participant says, “but I would be very surprised if there is consensus.”
Senior aides in the campaigns chasing Romney likewise struggle to articulate a plausible scenario in which South Carolina’s big conservative vote will coalesce behind one of them, especially after Paul finished second in New Hampshire, denying a lift to any other candidate with a potentially higher ceiling. In 2008, McCain captured South Carolina and effectively sealed his nomination while attracting only 31 percent of self-identified Republicans and 26 percent of self-identified conservatives because the Right divided, primarily between Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. With Santorum, Perry, and Gingrich again splitting conservative votes, Romney could replicate that formula to equally devastating effect in a state that has usually favored establishment over insurgent candidates in GOP presidential primaries.
That prospect reflects the larger dilemma for Romney’s rivals: While many conservative voters may prefer an alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, there’s little evidence that most of them are so determined to stop him that they will enlist in an-anybody-but-Romney crusade. In a Gallup survey this week, 59 percent of conservative Republicans described Romney as an acceptable nominee—more than picked any other candidate. “Consolidation against him is going to be easier said than done,” says a top adviser to one of Romney’s rivals.
Even if the Right can’t stop Romney, that doesn’t mean it has been powerless in this race. Like all his opponents, Romney this year is reading from a script largely crafted by conservatives. His agenda isn’t as revolutionary as Perry’s or Gingrich’s, but if Romney captures the nomination, he would emerge with a platform more right-leaning than any Republican nominee since at least Ronald Reagan in 1980, if not Barry Goldwater in 1964.
From the outset, the GOP nomination race has reversed the usual relationship between candidate and voter. The potential nominees have not so much sought to impose their own vision on the party as to demonstrate their reliability in implementing the vision that the party has already forged. “I think that they are adapting to the party rather than the other way around,” says Pete Wehner, a former top White House adviser to George W. Bush who is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “This is not a Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush moment where by force of personality, viewpoint, and ideology, those men reshaped their party. In this case, no one is reshaping the party; they are falling over themselves to prove who is the most committed to orthodoxy. The real center of gravity is the party, rather than the candidate.”
That’s evident in Romney’s commitment to the House Republican budget crafted by Ryan that squeezes domestic spending, converts Medicaid (and other antipoverty programs) into block grants, and transforms Medicare into a voucher, or premium-support, system. Romney pledges to balance the budget while limiting federal spending to a lean 20 percent of the economy; denounces any pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; and promises to repeal President Obama’s health care reform law.
Even so, many conservative leaders still distrust Romney and will be quick to bristle at slights to their values if he’s the nominee. “They expect Romney to do this play for independents without doing anything to excite the base,” Erickson says.
Democrats expect, or at least hope, that hair-trigger suspicion will inhibit Romney from courting centrist voters for fear of stirring a conservative uprising, or even a serious third-party challenge, perhaps from the libertarian constituency blossoming around Ron Paul. Veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who is advising a pro-Obama super PAC, predicts that Romney that “will be looking over his shoulder” through November.
Yet Romney, while moving right on issues like immigration during the primary, already has stopped short of accepting the Right’s full demands on several other fronts—for instance, he maintains an option for conventional Medicare in his premium-support plan and doesn’t propose further tax cuts for upper-income families. The fact that years of denunciation from the Right’s leading lights hasn’t crystallized into a more serious primary challenge could embolden Romney’s camp to take more risks in pursuit of swing voters if he captures the prize.
“A real movement would have found a horse,” one senior Romney adviser says. “I honestly can’t figure it out. I don’t know if the Washington people we all talk to don’t command the vast national movement that they say they do.” Even as his rivals muster for a last stand in South Carolina, the Right and Romney are both probing to determine how much each can push the other in a relationship that could prove more tumultuous and taxing than his race to the nomination itself.
This article appears in the January 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.