I wrote recently that the GOP presidential race has become, with Rick Perry's recent collapse, Mitt Romney's race to lose. Romney may not have a high ceiling, but his (more) conservative opposition is divided and, unless some other candidate steps up to unite the anti-Romney vote (as many suspected Perry would do, and as it seemed he was in fact going to do given his early popularity), he may end up winning almost by default, as the least weak in a field of embarrassingly weak candidates.
Looking at some recent polls, Nate Silver finds that Perry's decline has not benefited Romney in the polls. This makes sense. Romney is pretty much the lone establishment, relatively moderate candidate in the field. (Jon Huntsman is the other, but he's well back.) He appears to have Karl Rove and the Bushies behind him, along with most sensible Republicans. Perry's supporters clearly wouldn't switch to Romney but rather to the likes of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. They might have gone to Michele Bachmann, but she's barely registering anymore. Indeed, all we're seeing right now is some jockeying on the right, with Romney remaining fairly constant in the low-20s.
But there's the problem -- for Romney, if not for the GOP generally. Romney appears to have a very low ceiling and the opposition to him on the right is intense. There is clearly room for a right-wing candidate to take the nomination, especially in a one-on-one with Romney (generally, establishment versus base). It looked at first like that might be Bachmann, but then Perry surged into the lead upon entering the race and Bachmann fell back. But now Perry's falling back as well. It may be too early to write him off, but it seems increasingly unlikely that he'll recover. And there's really no one else around. Chris Christie isn't what the right is looking for (even if they're tempted by his bullying authoritarianism), Paul Ryan isn't running, and no one else seems to have both the conservative bona fides and national stature to unite the right against Romney. Actually, one person does, Sarah Palin, but she likely won't run (she's probably just toying with us, as she has all along) and isn't even all that popular among Republicans anymore.
For Romney, this is all good news. It's hard to imagine him winning with just 20-25 per cent support, but he could possibly boost that into the 30s and hold off his conservative challengers. But then what? Would Republicans really be happy with Romney having won the nomination with well short of majority support, with the right-wing base largely arrayed against him, and with the right divided? How much enthusiasm do you think there would be even within his own party for a Romney-led ticket? Sure, he could try to boost his standing among conservatives by continuing to move to the right and by picking a popular right-wing running mate (Ryan maybe?), but, just as he has never been able to shed his reputation as an opportunistic flip-flopper, would he ever be able to shed the stink of essentially having won the nomination by default? Conservatives still wouldn't like him and by moving to the right he would only weaken his standing among independents. He may get what he so badly wants, the Republican presidential nomination, but it's almost as if he's in a no-win situation.
Maybe I'm underestimating Romney's ceiling, but it really does seem to be him against the field, with the field unable to unite behind a credible anti-Romney candidate. Ongoing establishment support will help, particularly from the likes of Rove, as will the sense that Romney has the best shot of beating Obama -- Republicans may like their ideological purity these days, but they also like to win, and they may end up rallying around the most electable candidate, which right now is clearly Romney.
But it'll nonetheless be a steep uphill struggle for him even if he's currently sitting pretty atop the heap of also-rans. After all, even though he's been around for a long time (with national exposure), has significant name recognition and solid ground organizations all across the country, and generally acquits himself well on the campaign trail, he's still stuck in the low-20s and doesn't appear to have a ceiling much higher than that. And of course there's still time for conservatives to find one of their own, assuming it's not Perry, to unite them.
Yes, the race would appear right now to be Romney's to lose, but a Romney win might just be the undoing of the Republican Party in 2012. As supposedly electable as he is, there's no way he'd be elected without the right fully on board. And that seems extremely unlikely given the party's current divisions.
Cross-posted from The Reaction