It was about a month ago, just after the New Hampshire primary, that New York Times columnist Nate Silver estimated that Mitt Romney had a 98% chance of winning the 2012 Republican nomination. Today, in light of national polls showing Romney trailing Rick Santorum, and with Santorum also leading Romney in the latter’s “home” state of Michigan heading into the Feb. 28 primary there, I suspect no one would give Romney such favorable odds. (It is questionable whether Romney deserved those odds a month ago, but that is another story.) To be sure, one might be tempted to dismiss Silver’s estimate on the grounds that he’s no political (as opposed to statistical) expert, but in truth most of my political science colleagues who do specialize in presidential elections were quite bullish on Romney’s prospects even before he won in New Hampshire, although none to my knowledge were so confident as to put the odds quite that high. (In Silver’s defense, he openly acknowledged that his estimate was based on a very small sample size, and thus was subject to a good deal of [unspecified] uncertainty.)
Today, of course, it would be equally foolish to claim that Romney has no chance to win the nomination – indeed, he is probably still the frontrunner. However, it is clear that those forecasting a rather easy road to the nomination for Romney were overly optimistic. Instead, analysts are now bracing for a rather extended nomination fight and some are even considering the possibility – however remote – of a brokered convention.
At this point I should probably acknowledge what you already know – that I never bought into the Romney inevitability narrative. Nor, for that matter, am I as surprised as others that Newt Gingrich is still in the race, and that he may yet be the stronger candidate than Santorum. Before you anoint me the Pundit King, however, note that I never believed Santorum would also still be in this race. (Truth be told, I’m not sure he is in the race, but that’s for another post.) Moreover, as my students will no doubt remind me, I thought Rick Perry was likely a stronger candidate than Mitt. How’s that for forecasting expertise?
In some respects, of course, all nominating contests are sui generis. But many pundits are arguing that this nominating race has been exceptionally volatile with Republican voters “shredding the rule book.” During past Republican nominating contests, they argue, a candidate with a national organization who raised far more money than his opponents, and who received by far the most endorsements from party leaders, and who easily outpaced the field in securing both delegates and votes in the early contests, was destined to win the nomination in convincing fashion. In fact, history suggests such a candidate would get stronger as the field was winnowed – not weaker.
Why hasn’t this race followed the historical precedent? Pundits have suggested a couple of factors. One is the increase in the number of debates – 19 by my count – compared to previous years. I’ve touched on this in a previous post. While I think debates clearly provided a platform that most benefitted Newt Gingrich, some pundits believe they also exposed those Romney qualities – remember the $10,000 bet? – that led many Republican voters to dislike him in 2008. A second factor has been the rise of SuperPacs; some analysts argue that Santorum and Gingrich have survived in large part due to the “sugar daddies” – think Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess – who have taken advantage of the Citizen United ruling to personally bankroll their favored candidate. Without their financial backing, the argument goes, Romney would have closed this race out.
Without totally discounting these factors, I think there are at least two other reasons why this race has unfolded in somewhat unexpected fashion. The first are the rules changes to the Republican nominating process. Most political scientists, following Josh Putnam’s careful analysis, have tended to downplay the impact of the changes in how delegates are apportioned in the primaries held prior to April 1; they argue that a careful reading of the rules suggest that despite provisions designed to increase the number of delegates allocated in proportional fashion, in fact many of these primaries will play out much like winner-take-all states, particularly in a two-person race. This is because some states still award delegates in a winner-take-all fashion by congressional district, and some also award all the statewide delegates to anyone winning more than 50% of the statewide vote. In short, there’s no reason to expect the delegates to be split among several candidates, even under the new rules, as long as a front-runner like Romney emerges early.
The problem with this analysis is that it underplays the impact of the rule changes on candidate strategy. The fact is that under the 2008 rules, it would have been less likely that either Santorum or Gingrich would have gambled that they could survive in an extended race, so they would likely have folded their tents much earlier. Under the revised rules, however, they can envision a scenario by which they will pick up delegates even while suffering losses in many states. By altering candidates’ calculations to make it less likely that some would drop out, then, I would argue that the new rules have mattered.
The final reason why this race has proved so volatile, however, is perhaps the simplest: compared to previous Republican frontrunners, Mitt Romney is not a particularly strong candidate. And this is a reminder that, when it comes to nominations in the modern era, the Party Establishment does not decide – it ratifies. We saw this in 2008, when party leaders initially embraced Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but gradually switched over to backing Barack Obama when it became clear he was the favorite among party activists. I expect that we will see a similar dynamic in the Republican race if Romney continues to underperform – party leaders will begin pulling back endorsements.
But to what end? Romney’s one remaining trump card is that unlike with the Democrats in 2008, there is as yet no clear Romney alternative. Until one arises, he remains the frontrunner in name, if not yet in sentiment among the majority of Republican voters. It may be that either Newt or Rick may yet emerge to be the sole Mitt alternative. If neither does so, however, does that mean Mitt is destined to be the Republican nominee? Will party leaders hold their noses and back Mitt? Not necessarily. There is an alternative scenario by which Republican activists can even at this late date come up with a White Knight candidate. I’ll address that in a future post.