The obvious way to think about Mitt Romney’s chances in 2012 is to revisit his 2008 campaign—what went well, what went poorly, and so on. But circumstances haven’t just changed for Romney since 2008—they’ve more or less inverted. Back then, running against “maverick” John McCain, social-issues heretic Rudy Giuliani, and economic-issues dissenter Mike Huckabee, Romney was essentially the movement conservative candidate in the race. Today, with likely opponents ranging from Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum to Michele Bachmann to Tim Pawlenty to Haley Barbour, Romney seems destined to be the GOP’s most moderate contender. It’s not that Romney himself has “moved to the center” since 2008; it’s more that the Republican Party moved significantly and very self-consciously to the right, and Mitt didn’t quite keep up. The upshot is that his chances in 2012 will be shaped by a very different set of circumstances from the ones he faced last time—for better or, more likely, for worse.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Romney’s new political situation could help him. If Iowa is won by a candidate unacceptable to the party as a whole—say, Michele Bachmann—then his status as the most mainstream candidate in the race could certainly start to look appealing.
But it seems much more likely that Romney’s position as the race’s moderate will greatly reduce his chances. For one thing, there is the matter of endorsements. In 2008, Romney’s status as the only true conservative in the race garnered him a victory in the CPAC straw poll, and endorsements from Jim DeMint, Paul Weyrich, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Robert Bork, Rick Santorum, and the editors of National Review—all people whose opinions carry weight with the Republican base. It’s hard to imagine him winning support from any of those people in 2012.
The bigger problem for Romney, however, is that the mood in the Republican Party at the moment is triumphalist. Movement conservatives believe they have finally conquered the GOP and will soon conquer the country—if they are not sold out by the hated GOP establishment. As Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen observed after reviewing the sharp upward trend in conservative self-identification among Republican voters, “The ideological composition of the GOP at this point is such that it’s probably just flat impossible for someone perceived as a moderate to be their nominee.”
Romney is in a particularly bad position in Iowa, where evangelical voters remain wary of his Mormonism and he suffers from the perception that he tried to buy the caucuses last time around. Indeed, there are signs that he might be planning to skip out on the contest altogether. But if he does, he’ll have to then avoid upsets in New Hampshire and Nevada, and find some way to survive South Carolina and Florida, potentially against a candidate from the South like Gingrich or Barbour. That’s the point at which his inability to run as the “true conservative,” and the doubts about his work on extending health care in Massachusetts, could take a major toll.
At this point Romney just doesn’t have the qualities that would make hundreds of thousands of conservative ideologues excited about his candidacy or trust in his leadership. They know they’ll have to carefully watch him, during the campaign and in office, to keep him from joining the long list of Republican presidents who have betrayed the cause. That’s not what they’ve bargained for in 2012, when the forces of righteousness are due to smite the hated foe and occupy the seats of power.
Many party elites, to be sure, still back Romney for the very reason that, in this new field, he suddenly appears the most “electable” candidate—and serious conservatives will accept him if they must. But given half a chance, they’ll reject him without a moment’s regret, and that’s a handicap few presidential candidates can overcome.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.
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