As the 2012 invisible primary lurches to a close, the Republican Party looks more likely than ever to be in the process of presenting its caucus and primary voters with the choice between one candidate they don’t want to nominate and another their fellow-Americans don’t want to elect. Mitt Romney simply hasn’t grown on primary voters; if anything, in recent weeks, he’s soured. And Newt Gingrich, for his part, would enter the general election as the weakest GOP nominee since Barry Goldwater. But owing to the present weakness of the GOP establishment, the bullishness of the base, and the fact that someone must win, my money is currently on Gingrich pulling off a repeat of 1964.
It would normally go without saying that the Republican Party establishment would find a way to ensure that Romney receives the nomination. But even the most robust assessment of establishment power within the GOP must take into account the simple fact that the rank-and-file will have the final say; the establishment, for all its money and access to the airwaves, can only succeed via its influence with actual voters who elect actual delegates to the actual convention. And such voters simply aren’t taking to him. Romney has now failed to benefit in any tangible way from the crashing and burning of no less than three candidates who have serially led him in national polls. His favorability/unfavorability ratio among Republican voters has been eroding notably, and he’s finally looking vulnerable even in New Hampshire, supposedly his Maginot Line against a poor showing in Iowa. Even his reputation as untouchable in candidate debates has come into question after a shaky performance in the recent ABC/Des Moines Register forum this last weekend. And time for yet another front-runner crash-and-burn is rapidly running out, with the blitzkrieg of January nominating events, beginning with the Iowa caucuses, exactly three weeks away.
But even more importantly, Romney’s shocking weakness against Gingrich suggests that his supposed trump card, “electability,” doesn’t really matter all that much to Republican voters. Given present trends, that’s not as surprising as it might seem. Ever-increasing majorities of likely Republican primary voters are expressing the opinion that they’d prefer a nominee who reflects their values and views to one with a better chance of winning next November. And even among the minority who say they care most about electability, it should by no means be assumed that that concern translates into support for Romney, given the recent ascendancy of the conservative dogma that run-to-the-center moderates are guaranteed losers and the parallel belief—born of the party’s exceptional contempt for Barack Obama—that any true conservative is destined to win in 2012. To put it bluntly, the conservative activists who dominate the Republican presidential nominating contest are split between those who simply don’t believe adverse polls about Gingrich, and those who would rather control the GOP than the White House, if forced to choose.
Revealingly enough, even believers in the ultimate power of the GOP establishment are beginning to lose faith in Mitt and look to previously far-fetched possibilities for resolving the GOP nomination process. Nate Silver’s take on the situation sums it up nicely:
Republicans are dangerously close to having none of their candidates be acceptable to rank-and-file voters and the party establishment. It’s not clear what happens when this is the case; there is no good precedent for it. But since finding a nominee who is broadly acceptable to different party constituencies is the foremost goal of any party during its nomination process, it seems possible that Republicans might begin to look elsewhere.
And so some pundits, including Rhodes Cook and Ezra Klein, have suggested that the establishment could go to astonishing lengths, up to and including a very late candidacy or even a “brokered convention,” to keep Newt off the top of the ticket. Cook goes all the way back to 1976 to the Democratic candidacies of Frank Church and Jerry Brown for any sort of precedent for his late-entry scenario, but both candidates came up far short, of course. And he concedes that any such 2012 candidate would have to win virtually everything still on the table after missing most of the filing deadlines for primaries prior to April. And Klein doesn’t offer any specific game-plan for the exceedingly unlikely event of a brokered convention.
But those pundits willing to entertain “anything’s possible” scenarios to thwart a Gingrich nomination might want to be more open to the possibility of the establishment simply losing, which is not unprecedented. Indeed, it happened in 1964, when the power of the rank-and-file to elect delegates in primaries was extremely limited, and very nearly happened again in 1976, when Ronald Reagan came within an eyelash of denying renomination to a sitting president. In both cases, a very large number of Republican voters showed themselves to be more interested in defeating the Republican establishment than in defeating Democrats.
Of course, I am not, repeat not, by any means arguing that Gingrich is anything like a shoo-in for the nomination at this point. The exposure of his many heresies against conservative orthodoxy, stressed so avidly by his opponents in the first Iowa debate, may still sink in among voters. Late and highly coordinated endorsements from right-wing opinion-leaders like Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats and Steve King could lift another candidate like Perry, Bachmann, or Santorum just enough to wreck Gingrich’s momentum in Iowa. Or Ron Paul could win the caucuses, making New Hampshire the real starting point.
But if Newt loses, it won’t be because of some mystical power of the GOP establishment to deny the nomination to a weak general-election candidate. Conservative activists have a different view of the risks and opportunities of 2012 than either establishment pooh-bahs or the pundits. What looks to some like a winnable-or-losable general election looks to ideologues like the best chance in decades to replay 1964 and repeal the Great Society and the New Deal. In this context, it’s no surprise that the old revolutionary Gingrich looks like a better prospect than Romney to take on that challenge—and if it fails, well, it’s just a small step backwards on the conservative movement’s long march to ultimate victory.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.