So with Rick Santorum dropping out, and Newt Gingrich fading to irrelevance, perhaps it is time to think about the question: why did Mitt Romney prevail?
Several things pop to mind here in answer to this question. Notably, each has been a consistent part of Romney’s campaign—which is why people like me have been pretty consistent in stating we thought Romney would win the nomination even as the sturm and drang of the race unfolded.
1. Republicans have a tendency to choose “next.” What this means is that Republicans tend to choose whatever credible candidate finished second in the last primary, or a prominent Republican who gets into the race in the current election cycle. Thus Reagan followed Ford, Bush followed Reagan, McCain followed Bush II and Romney followed McCain. I don’t think this means Santorum will rise in 2016 if Romney fails in 2012—I imagine a Governor or somesuch will jump in. But in general, Republicans don’t choose protest candidates or newcomers.
2. Romney stood in the center of the ideological heart of the Republican Party. That Mitt Romney has twisted himself into a pretzel in order to stand at the conservative heart of the Republican Party is absolutely true. It is also true that he is standing there, unlike the even more conservative evangelical candidates. If you are a conservative Republican who is not evangelical, it’s Romney or … ? So Romney it is.
3. The evangelical candidates divided the Christian conservative vote. Much like 2008, the presence of several candidates all seeking to please the Christian conservative wing of the party divided that active and aggressively noisy group … leaving everyone else to vote for Romney. No Republican campaigning in a competitive primary since 1980 has won by being the most conservative candidate in the pool. Romney is much more conservative than most Americans, but not as conservative as most of the other Republican candidates. He got the votes of the non-evangelicals in the party.
4. Organization, organization, organization. People like me kept screaming about this one, and kept being ignored. But the fact is that presidential primaries are held in states—states that have lots of different laws about campaign organization, fund-raising, delegate selection, and much more. Candidates require vast organizations to overcome these disparate rules and to maximize their chances. Romney had such an organization. The others didn’t. And since I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no candidate in the modern era of campaigns (1972-present) has ever won a primary with a made-up-as-you-go organization. Nor did one do so this year.
5. Money. Money is crucial to every part of a campaign. Romney got more of it. The others got quite a bit less. As is typical of Republican primaries, the money went to the “next” candidate. Citizens United let the sugar daddies, Sherman Adelson and Foster Friese, keep Gingrich and Santorum in the game much longer than otherwise would likely have been the case. But they weren’t willing to spend as much as Romney was able to raise, and they had weak candidates to support.
6. Candidate quality. Sometimes in life you benefit from weak opponents. Romney did. A pizza executive with no political experience. A flame-throwing member of Congress. A staggeringly uncharismatic governor. A telegenic ex-governor who had, god help him, worked for Obama. A disgraced, thrice-married and known serial adulterer ex-Speaker of the House. A charismatic ex-Senator who seemed to specialize in making outrageous comments. And a (mostly) libertarian who didn’t really attack Romney in a party that has no interest in libertarians. Reagan v Bush or Bush v McCain it wasn’t. It was a good year for Romney to run. Rick Perry should have been formidable by institutional position. But he wasn’t in real life.
So now we shift to the general election. Let me introduce one theme I will come to again and again (I imagine): Presidents are elected in 51 state-by-state (with DC) elections, not by national vote. You will see lots of national polls. Ignore them. Look for the state-level information. That’s what matters in electing the President of the United States.