Finally, Republicans and Democrats have something they can agree on: The GOP presidential nomination race is a mess. ”It’s the most unfathomable Republican race of our lifetime,” a senior aide to Barack Obama’s reelection effort told me last week. Back in February, Ralph Reed, the lifetime GOP activist, told me, “It’s the most wide open since 1964.”
Now comes word that Mitch Daniels, the popular governor of Indiana, has bowed out for family concerns. So maybe it’s time for us all to admit that this bipartisan consensus that this race is anybody’s to win is probably dead wrong.
The last time folks said that the GOP race was unprecedentedly wide open was, well, last time. Back in 2007, pundits crowed about the chaos in the GOP field. The front runner in the polls, Rudy Giuliani, was pro-choice, had dressed in drag, hated campaigning and generally turned off a big chunk of the GOP electorate when he did. The front runner in organizational might and historical precedent, John McCain, basically saw his organization implode by the summer of 2007. The wealthy up-and-comer, Mitt Romney, had a problem connecting with voters, many of whom didn’t much like his religion. And the insurgent, Mike Huckabee, alienated fiscal conservatives and couldn’t raise any money.
But someone had to win. And who was it? The guy who was supposed to win all along, McCain, the second place finisher from the previous presidential race in 2000. This is the way of the GOP. Has been for years. You get in line. You wait your turn. You get the nod.
So let’s look at 2012. Once again, we have lots of hemming and hawing about the weakness of the wide open field and the grass being greener on the other side. If only a real winner, like Chris Christie, or Rick Perry, or Jeb Bush got in the game, the party gripes. Gosh these candidates suck, the press commiserates over beer at Strange Brew in Manchester or martinis at 801 Chophouse in Des Moines.
But what if the outcome is just as obvious? The current GOP field, after all, has a clear frontrunner, now that Huckabee, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Daniels have bowed out. (In a statement before dawn Sunday morning, Daniels explained that he would not run because of “the interests and wishes of my family.”) Mitt Romney is that man, leading in the polls, leading in the money race, and having basically come in second last time. But he’s not getting credit for it.
So let’s look at why that is. The Associated Press moved a story over the wire last week with the headline, “Romney has it all — except GOP stalwart support.” Basically no one at the recent Republican National Committee meeting in Dallas said they supported him, the story reported. “A lot of Republicans are hoping someone new pops up,” said one of the stalwarts, Kirby Wilbur, the party chairman in Washington state.
Another reason that Romney is not getting his due is that he refuses to campaign beyond newspaper op-ed pages, an apparent calculation that risks betraying his own lack of confidence in his abilities of persuasion and performance. This is particularly offensive to reporters and residents of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, who like to kick the tires for as long as possible. The third reason is Romney’s support for the individual mandate, which some pundits and party activists declare as a disqualifier in a party seized by anti-Obamacare furies.
So let us consider these three Romney problems in light of the historical GOP pattern. In 2008, John McCain was dogged by his unpopular positions–he supported tackling global warming and comprehensive immigration reform. But he still won. (And this time around, Romney actually has lots of company on health care: Both Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich have, in the past, voiced support for the individual mandate, according to a story by the Huffington Post which has been contested by some Huntsman allies.) Many GOP stalwarts and just about all of the extra-party talk radio universe were also against McCain in 2008, since they considered him an elite, closeted liberal. And yet, he still got more votes.
The big difference between Romney and McCain is that McCain had a proven ability to convince people to vote for him on the stump, especially in New Hampshire, a quality that Romney has yet to prove. But unlike McCain, Romney will have lots of money to spend on persuasion. If Romney fails to win the nomination at this point it will simply be because people don’t like him enough to vote for him. But make no mistake: In this shrunken GOP field, Romney is the clear frontrunner, ready to ride the longstanding GOP tradition of the runner-up who wins next time.
Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman and the rest are now running against Romney as much as they are running against Obama. And if Romney pulls it out in the end, with a win in New Hampshire, the grass-is-always-greener punditocracy will have been proved wrong for the second time in two cycles. This doesn’t mean Pawlenty, Huntsman or others don’t have a chance. It just means there is a lot less suspense than both Democrats and Republicans would have you believe.