By Elvin Lim
The Republican nomination race is still Mitt Romney’s to lose, but he is in trouble yet again, and his cloak of inevitability is fast disappearing.
Even if Romney won every delegate from now on, and he won’t, it wouldn’t be mathematically possible for him to lock up 1144 delegates at least until early April. It is now too late in almost every state to get on the ballot, so barring a brokered convention where a compromise candidate can potentially emerge out of nowhere, we are down to these last four candidates. Ironically though, the longer Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich stay in the race, the more likely the Republicans will be headed toward a brokered convention, and new developments keep making what was once a journalist’s dream a palpable possibility. Gingrich’s superPAC just got a 10 million infusion from Sheldon Adelson, and with a lock on Georgia’s delegates, he has no incentive to drop out anytime soon. Ron Paul, of course, is the only candidate in this race in it for the ideas and the ideas alone, so he is guaranteed to stay on for as long as he can shape the debate. When 2012 is wrapped up, it may well be that only one person unambiguously benefited from Citizens United and the rise of the superPACs to sustain the campaigns of what would once have been longshot candidates — the same person who had initially opposed Citizens United, Barack Obama.
With a steady trickle of good news coming in about the economy, Mitt Romney’s strong suit is losing its luster, which is why the game between the two front-runners is fluid and difficult to call. With contraception in the news, Romney’s moderate credentials pale in contrast to Santorum’s authentic conservatism, or as Romney has tried to say of himself, “severe” conservatism. Funded by billionaire Foster Freiss, Santorum now has the resources to fight a longish race. More important, he is polling ahead of Romney in Michigan, where Romney’s father was once the Governor. If Santorum ekes out a victory in Michigan, he may get enough of a momentum to win in delegate-rich Ohio, a key battleground state that will cause Establishment Republicans to give him a fresh look. Things could then get really messy this summer, and this is bad news for the GOP. The difference between the Obama-Clinton battle in 2008 and the Romney-Santorum battle is that Clinton wasn’t able to pull Obama to the Right. Each of the anti-Romney candidates have taken their turn to drag Romney so far to the Right that the eventual nominee may not have time to race back to the center to stage a plausible general election campaign.
Already, the divergence of interest between the presidential and primary candidates and incumbent republicans is occurring. On the one hand, Republicans in Congress have already caved in to payroll tax cuts proposed by the Obama administration, and succumbed to the pressure to moderate in order to produce some legislative outcomes in an election year. On the other hand, the primary electorate is being invited to live in an alternate universe, where ideological purity and consistency rather than moderation will be rewarded. The net result is that the overlapping of general and primary election imperatives — the incentive to go right and go center – is going to get increasingly glaring and damaging to the GOP the longer the nomination contest goes on. The Republican party therefore has every incentive to end the nomination race soon, so that it can begin the move toward the center that will position the candidate to take on Obama in the fall, and to mitigate the potential embarrassment of more congressional cavings in to come as the lame-duck session tries to find something to show after two years of unproductive bickering.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.