Mitt Romney’s political backers began whispering about the possibility of another Romney presidential campaign only a few months after he lost in 2012. The mockery (from the left) and cris de cœur (from the right) have been rehearsed. So the following story doesn’t come out of nowhere, but Byron York has fleshed out the theory of a third Romney candidacy with some new reporting in the Washington Examiner.

“Romney is said to believe that, other than himself, Bush is the only one of the current Republican field who could beat Hillary Clinton in a general election,” York reports. “If Bush jumps in the race, this line of thinking goes, Romney would not run. But if Bush stays out — well, Romney's wife Ann raised more hopes in Romneyland during a conversation this week with Fox News' Neil Cavuto.”

I won’t pretend to know whether the Romney crew is serious or just trying to draw a candidate with a similar pedigree, like Bush, out of the woodwork, to fend off the far right (Ted Cruz), the military doves (Rand Paul), and the prematurely exuberant (Marco Rubio). But what I do know is that they are restating the terms of a familiar debate over whether the GOP’s donor-class candidates or grassroots candidates are better equipped to win general elections. And you don’t need to invoke Barry Goldwater to make a convincing case that Romney et al are correct about this.

Most people think of the GOP primary campaign as a contest between conservative hardliners and establishmentarians. But it’s actually more like two different contests: One in which a group of undisciplined hardliners undercut each other’s bids to take on the favorite; and another in which elders rally around the most conservative of the party’s disciplined, accomplished veterans. These lines never cross. Conservatives are far too exacting to accept a conservative who curries favor from the donor class, and the donor class won’t favor a candidate who panders to the far right too much.

So conservatives are structural underdogs, and will be until they become disciplined enough to anoint a candidate and keep all other pretenders on the sidelines.

But even if they pulled that off, the Romney cohort would still have the better of the argument. Running a guy like Romney (a former blue state governor without a strong ideological compass) might make things uncomfortable for conservative activists. But voters aren’t particularly troubled by this internecine tension. For my money, Ramesh Ponnuru did the best job of explaining this to the right, a week after election day in 2012.

Romney was not a drag on the Republican party. The Republican party was a drag on him. Aaron Blake pointed out in the Washington Post that Romney ran ahead of most of the Republican Senate candidates: He did better than Connie Mack in Florida, George Allen in Virginia, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, Denny Rehberg in Montana, Jeff Flake in Arizona, Pete Hoekstra in Michigan, Deb Fischer in Nebraska, Rick Berg in North Dakota, Josh Mandel in Ohio, and of course Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In some cases Romney did a lot better. (He also did slightly better than Ted Cruz in Texas, a race Blake for some reason ignored.)

None of those candidates were as rich as Romney, and almost all of them had more consistently conservative records than he did. It didn’t help them win more votes. The only Republican Senate candidates who ran significantly ahead of Romney were people running well to his left in blue states, and they lost too.

Conservatives can be forgiven for being sick of Romney and wanting fresh blood. But they should hope (perhaps quietly hope) that someone like Romney throws his hat in fairly soon. Otherwise they’ll be stuck with a candidate who carries all the baggage of the congressional party, and a down-ballot catastrophe. A Romney-ite would have a hard time beating Hillary Clinton, but a much better chance than any of the conservatives who have all but declared their candidacies already.