The story of 2011 was that Republicans had a frontrunner they weren’t in love with. Mitt Romney spent the entire year below 25 percent in national polls; a new Mitt alternative surged ahead of him every few weeks, only to collapse when it turned out he or she couldn’t pass an eighth grade civics class. The pundits concluded from this that Romney’s grip on the nomination was tenuous and that, even after his (apparent) Iowa win, the race was a lot less stable than it looked. If three-quarters of the party had reservations about Romney, the thinking went, it shouldn’t be that hard for someone to consolidate the anti-Romney bloc and bump him off.
That was the conventional wisdom up until New Hampshire, in any case, at which point a revisionist theory took hold. According to the theory, put forth by some of the smartest analysts around, Romney was much stronger than he appeared to be. Twenty-five percent in national polls was actually a respectable showing in a seven-candidate field, the argument went. Moreover, many of the Republicans who favored someone else told pollsters they wouldn’t object if he were the nominee, and so it was a mistake to equate support for a rival candidate as opposition to Romney. In fact, when you looked at one-on-one matchups between Romney and the other contenders in mid-January, voters typically supported Romney by a two-to-one margin. As John Sides, one of the proponents of the theory, argued, “This suggests that as the field narrows, Romney’s support will grow, in contrast to the notion that the ‘anti-Romney’ vote could coalesce around another, apparently more conservative candidate if there weren’t so many conservatives in the race."
There’s still something to be said for this theory—surely most Republican voters will accept Romney as their nominee if/when it comes to that. But, after South Carolina, it’s clear that Sides’ theory overstated Romney’s strength, and that the original take on Romney was largely correct. There’s simply no other explanation for how a candidate as deeply flawed as Newt Gingrich, and as widely-regarded as unelectable, could wipe the floar with the erstwhile frontrunner in such a critical contest. Republican voters may not have spent 2011 implacably opposed to Romney, but they harbored a deep ambivalence toward him, and the ambivalence never subsided. If proponents of the anybody-but-Romney theory mistakenly conflated support for another candidate with opposition to Romney, then Sides and proponents of the Romney-is-pretty-strong theory conflated the willingness of GOP voters to settle for Romney (which existed) with actual settling (which was still a long way off).
I’d argue that what we saw in South Carolina was just an extension of the dynamic we’ve observed for several months now: Voters seem resigned to Romney in the abstract, but every time his nomination becomes “inevitable,” they grope for an alternative and deny him a clean grip on it. It happened during the clown-show that was 2011. It happened in Iowa, and it happened again tonight. And, unfortunately for Romney, I suspect it’ll happen at least a few more times. Romney will almost certainly recover from this lost, as voters and the media refocus on Gingrich’s flaws (with the help of Romney’s millions). The ex-governor will then run off a string of victories that make the nomination look inevitable. But then, just before he can clinch it, Newt will enjoy yet another resurgence as voters work through their commitment issues.
In many ways the dynamic in the 2012 GOP primaries is the mirror image of the Democratic primaries in 2008: Every time it looked like Hillary Clinton was about to lose, voters rallied around her—in New Hampshire, then Texas and Ohio—even though her loss in the broader nomination fight looked increasingly inevitable. This time it’s a similar dynamic operating in the opposite direction, with voters defecting from Romney when it looks like he’s about to win, even though they consider him the likely nominee. As 2008 showed, the inevitable-looking scenario is probably the one that wins out in the end. But it could take weeks if not months for that to happen.
Update: A couple have commenters have complained that they see no analogy between Hillary and Newt. As it happens, I'm not drawing one. The analogy is entirely between Hillary and Romney. In 2008, Hillary's loss looked increasingly inevitable. But voters didn't seem to want it to happen on any given day. Any time she was about to get knocked out, they tried to prevent it from happening, until she basically lost on a judges' decision. This time, Romney's win has looked inevitable for months. But any time it's been on the verge of happening (with a bona fide win in Iowa, a win in SC), voters have gotten second thoughts and tried to prevent this, too, from happening. I think Romney may have to win on a judges' decision.
But none of this has anything to do with Newt (or, for that matter, Obama). I'm not saying the race matches up with 2008 in every particular--or even many particulars. Just in terms of the mindset voters have toward the inevitable-seeming outcome.
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