In October, State of the Race declared Mitt Romney the heavy favorite to become the Republican 2012 candidate for president of the United States. Since then, much has changed in the Republican field, but the most important change is this: Mitt Romney is no longer the heavy favorite to become the Republican nominee; he is the prohibitive favorite. His polling numbers against other candidates, his polling numbers against Obama, his institutional support, his campaign funding, his superior organization, his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the political positioning and messaging of his campaign have given him a virtual lock on the nomination.
Only one or two candidates yet remaining in the race are even plausible challengers. The first, Rick Perry, ended his surge by delivering disastrous debate performances and has since had miserable showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Unless he manages to stabilize with a strong showing in South Carolina, his campaign funding and volunteer pool will dry up and his bid will be over. The arguable second, Jon Huntsman, never even got so far as a surge, and will soon depart after failing to notch a win in New Hampshire.
The remainder of the field has no conceivable path to victory. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul are each seriously flawed candidates, and largely disliked by Republicans as a whole.
To borrow a phrase from Rich Galen, Ron Paul’s “stop-signs-are-a-violation-of-my-fifth-amendment-rights” brand of libertarianism may find appeal with some, but to the majority of Republicans his extremism is deeply unsettling. In a Gallup poll, 62 percent of GOP respondents said he was an “unacceptable” candidate, putting a hard ceiling on the fraction of the vote he could ever receive.
Rick Santorum suffers from a similar problem — to extreme social conservatives, his pronouncements against homosexuality and his promises to ban pornography elicit strong support. But to most (including his home state of Pennsylvania, where he lost his senate seat by the widest margin ever achieved by a Republican senator), his Catholic fervor is off-putting. Like Paul, Rick Santorum has a hard cap on the fraction of support he can muster (only 27 percent considered him acceptable in the same Gallup poll). Even if it were possible to raise his ceiling, Santorum’s lack of organization, funding, and political temperament work against this prospect.
The response by the conservative establishment to the candidacy of Newt Gingrich is best described in a tweet by the decidedly non-establishment Will Wilkinson: “If Newt Gingrich becomes president, we all deserve to die in a purifying fire.” As Newt’s star rose, a progression of party leaders, elder statesmen, and ideological luminaries went on the airwaves to express their horror that a man as cruel, egotistical, and incoherent as Newt Gingrich could ever become the party’s nominee. To summarize the laundry list of reasons why their characterizations of Newt are fair would take a full article of its own. Suffice it to say they are effective — in three short weeks, his polling numbers in Iowa went from 31 percent to less than 14 percent, a drop even more precipitous than that of Herman Cain. Expect this performance to be repeated in any state in which the voters have temporarily confused Newt for a passable candidate.
Some pundits counter by claiming that Mitt Romney suffers from a ceiling as well. It is hard to understand why they think that this is so. Romney may not be the first choice of Tea Partiers or evangelical Christians, but it is unclear that he is viewed very negatively either — a majority of Republican voters report that Romney is an acceptable candidate, and the results of Iowa suggest Romney is capable of picking up a respectable piece of any of the Republican party’s factions. If the field winnows to just Romney and a more conservative opponent, there is no reason to think Romney would not win every contest 60-30 (I’ll credit the immortal Dr. Paul with a consistent 10 percent). Moreover, Romney’s appeal to moderates, independents, and other groups that are typically under-represented at party primaries suggests that he would have an easier time working around a ceiling in his support through get-out-the-vote efforts.
This is not to say that Mitt Romney is unbeatable — it is merely to say that none of the current field are in any position to beat him. Were a new challenger to throw their hat in the ring — say a Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan — the 2012 nomination contest could once again become competitive. This is why, however, the difference between heavy favorite and prohibitive favorite is an important distinction.
To enter the presidential race now is to risk having one’s political career ended by a talented campaigner who has no shortage of money, manpower, and support among party leaders. Each gaffe made would be amplified and broadcast nationwide, every piece of the candidate’s past would be picked up and examined by a hyperbolic media. This risk is out-of-balance with the likelihood of reward. Even if a new candidate joined the race today, the filing deadlines to compete for 40.3 percent of the race’s elected delegates would have already passed. Romney would enter March 6’s “Super Tuesday” elections with victories in all, or perhaps all but one of the previous primaries and caucuses. And while funding, organization, and media attention might come easily to a new “non-Romney,” those assets are unlikely to outdo what Romney has already amassed in his long-standing bid for the presidency. It would be an uphill battle all of the way, and at the end of the long slog wouldn’t even be the presidency — it would be another grueling, uphill battle against an even better funded, better organized, more talented opponent.
There are three ways in which Romney might be defeated. If Rick Perry were to catch a miracle in South Carolina and then run a flawless campaign, Romney could lose. If a new challenger took a long shot gamble and won, Romney could lose. And if Romney himself made a disastrous miss-step, he could lose. But collectively, the odds of any of these happening are less than five percent. With two-sigma certainty, Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential candidate of 2012.