The argument always starts with the following assumption: “Mitt Romney has to be the Republican nominee because he’s the only candidate who makes sense.” Then comes the head scratching: “So why hasn’t this become obvious to Republican voters?” For months I’ve been hearing versions of this question, and you have to admit it sounds reasonable. After all, Romney beats all rivals in head-to-head match-ups with President Obama. He has taken moderate positions in the past, which should help him win over unaffiliated voters. He has run before in a party that usually rewards the next candidate in line, is well financed, and has more establishment support than his rivals. Yet his polling numbers have been flat for a year as the Republican electorate has flirted with a string of less polished, less established and less competitive alternatives. At some point, the argument goes, those voters are going to have to come around to Romney, because no other result makes sense.
In previous years, Romney likely would have catapulted to a substantial lead by this point, because in past cycles the nomination process served to weed out pretenders and boutique candidates. This is what the primary season is supposed to do, but Republican voters don’t appear to have gotten the memo. Romney’s struggles are a symptom of an important substantive shift in the Republican electorate since the emergence of the Tea Party movement, a shift that has pushed the Republican Party outside the range of conventional discourse – the consensus that defined the parameters of acceptable political choices since the Great Depression. Until recently, domestic politics entailed market-oriented conservatives squaring off against social welfare liberals over the size and scope of tax and regulatory policy. Both sides agreed there should be a welfare state while differing on how extensive it should be. Today, a large portion of the Republican base advocates policies outside that consensus in a challenge to the welfare state itself.
This shift is at the core of Romney’s problem. The rationale for his candidacy is that he is electable in a traditional sense, but a core Republican vote is hostile to traditional appeals. Romney is struggling precisely because his candidacy makes so much sense when viewed through the lens of conventional politics at a time when an animated segment of his party wants a warrior who will take an axe to the assumptions underpinning those very conventions. When he advanced a universal health care law as governor of Massachusetts, Romney’s position was firmly rooted in a market-based conservative intellectual tradition that formed the right pole in a debate with advocates of a single-payer solution on the left. As President Obama embraced Romney’s approach in an attempt to engineer a politically viable national plan, Republicans slipped their traditional philosophical moorings, declared the Obama effort to be an act of socialism, and vowed to oppose it. Now, Romney has to renounce the signature achievement of his governorship to compete in a party that rejects health coverage as a right. An achievement that surely looked like a springboard to national office under traditional rules of engagement has become a huge liability with a primary electorate looking for a candidate who won’t compromise on his commitment to not compromise. Romney has tried to present himself as that guy, but the voters aren’t buying it.
The desire for a candidate outside the traditional political consensus has turned the Republican nominating process into something resembling a reality TV show, as a bevy of colorful candidates compete in a string of debate contests to become the Next Great Standard Bearer, vying for the affection of voters at home by out-doing each other with appeals that would have been discounted as marginal in previous election cycles. In rapid succession, voters flirted with – then rejected – Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, even Ron Paul, eventually settling on Rick Santorum as the winner in the “non-Romney” category of the Iowa caucus. None of these choices make sense to establishment Republicans determined to force their party into a more conventional stance that would be competitive in a general election, but while base voters were considering everyone else on the debate stage, Romney held steady with the 25% of pragmatists who constitute his meager base of support.
In the end, the pragmatists may succeed by virtue of the pull of Romney’s superior fundraising and organization, but it is clear after Iowa that if Romney is to prevail he will have to back into the nomination as an awkward and imperfect fit to the party he seeks to represent. That would leave a vacuum at the top of the Republican ticket for the large contingent of base voters who want a nominee with the credentials to challenge the last eighty years of political consensus, even after they spent 2011 voting a succession of contestants for that role off the island. If this makes no sense in conventional terms, it’s because those terms do not apply.
Matthew R. Kerbel is professor of political science at Villanova University and author or editor of eight books on American politics, including his most recent work on Internet politics, Netroots.