In the view of most political professionals, the race for the Republican presidential nomination is essentially over. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did well enough in the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday, and combined with his all-but-certain victory in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10 –he has a 20-point lead over his nearest rival in recent polls -- most Republicans will quickly coalesce around him as the inevitable nominee.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Romney’s road to the nomination is free of potholes. Partisans of candidates still running will resist accepting the inevitable for as long as their money keeps coming in and Romney doesn’t have enough delegates to officially declare victory. It ain’t over till it’s over, the also-rans will repeat, ad infinitum. But praying for miracles isn’t usually a very good electoral strategy.
Some of Romney’s competitors have personal reasons for continuing their quest past the point of realistic hope. Former Sen. Rick Santorum’s supporters tend to be heavily evangelical and are suspicious both of Romney’s Mormonism and the GOP’s long record of pandering to them as long as their votes are needed and promptly forgetting about them the minute the election is over.
Evangelicals will keep Santorum alive until the convention so that he can fight for their issues in the platform. He will attempt to extract commitments from Romney to promote family-friendly policies, a hawkish stance toward Iran and other issues where Romney and Santorum have different priorities.
Although he obviously has no chance of winning
the nomination, Perry has the
potential to be kingmaker.
I expect Santorum to fade quickly in the polls, just like all the previous not-Romneys who briefly led: Rep. Michele Bachman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich will prove to be the not-Romney with the longest legs. He will attempt to consolidate the anti-Romney vote. With three-fourths of Republicans consistently favoring anyone-but-Romney, Gingrich’s approach can theoretically work. But only if Santorum and Perry drop out and throw their support to him.
I think this is unlikely. Santorum’s hold on the evangelicals is strong and I think he will hang in unless the evangelical community tells him to quit. Given the intensity of opposition to Romney among this group, I don’t see that happening. Santorum may also harbor hopes of being chosen as vice president. It’s a long shot, but not unimaginable. (Mitt running with Newt is inconceivable.)
That leaves Perry with some cards to play. Although he obviously has no chance of winning the nomination, Perry has the potential to be kingmaker. He has already signaled a desire to fill that role by pushing forward into South Carolina despite his poor showing in Iowa.
If Perry were to simply drop out, then Gingrich or Santorum might hope to become THE anti-Romney candidate. But as long as Perry stays in, he prevents that from happening, thus indirectly aiding Romney. If Perry uses his still-considerable financial resources to attack Santorum and Gingrich, he would be doing Romney an enormous favor, potentially making him a viable running mate.
If Paul loses, many of his supporters
will simply leave the political process.
For them, it is Paul or nothing at all.
While Perry may appear to be damaged goods at this time, I think it is premature to write him off completely. His big problem is simply that he was unprepared to run for president and didn’t have an adequate command of the issues. But he still has time to get up to speed, get properly briefed and give some thoughtful speeches that can revive his image. By the time of the Republican convention in late August, Perry’s strength in the south and solid conservatism could make him the inevitable choice for VP.
Further supporting the idea of a Romney-Perry pairing is that conservative doubts about Romney will never go away and only become more pronounced as he attempts to move toward the center for the general election campaign. To avoid alienating more Republican voters than he gains among independents, Romney will need a running mate who can cover his right flank and enthusiastically play the role that the number two historically plays of being the attack dog who throws red meat to the party’s base.
I have left Ron Paul for last because everyone knows that he cannot win. And because his issues are so idiosyncratic, he can neither aspire to be Romney’s running mate nor throw his support to Santorum, Gingrich or Perry. If Paul loses, many of his supporters will simply leave the political process. For them, it is Paul or nothing at all. Of those that remain active politically after the convention, they will probably split in thirds for Romney, Barack Obama, and the Libertarian Party candidate, probably former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Many of Paul’s supporters will demand that he run an independent campaign. I don’t see that happening in large part because it would damage the career of his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Ron will stay in the GOP until the end, although I seriously doubt that he will ever be seen campaigning with Romney unless he is willing to promise Ron some significant governmental appointment from which he can continue to rant about abolishing the Federal Reserve.
Despite the de facto end of the Republican race, it will be in the interest of the media to keep the pretense of a contest going because it attracts ratings. To the extent that this keeps alive the campaigns of Santorum, Gingrich and Perry, it’s bad for the GOP, which would prefer to turn its attention to Obama. On the other hand, it probably doesn’t matter much one way or another. Research shows that most voters won’t even start to focus serious on the election until just before Election Day.