This kind of thinking is increasingly widespread among Republicans. And it is giving rise to ever-louder (though still private) calls for a Romney-Santorum alternative to enter the race after Super Tuesday. Last week, Politico reported that Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and New Jersey governor Chris Christie have been subject to mounting entreaties by GOP leaders to dive in. And so, I am reliably told, have Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush.
Logistically speaking, the white-knight scenario is a stretch, but nothing like as fantastical as it sounds. After Super Tuesday, there are still seven states—five voting on June 5, including winner-take-all monsters California and New Jersey—where it is possible to get on the ballot. And if a stud Republican were to put himself forward, as a “tippy-top Republican” told Politico’s Mike Allen, “he would suck all the oxygen out of the race. People wouldn’t even give a shit who won on these other dates in March that are after Super Tuesday. I mean, seriously, who would care? It would all be about a new savior.”
Even if such a savior won all five states, he would be far away from the 1,145 delegates necessary to secure the nomination. But given the proportional nature of many of the contests in March, April, and May, there’s a decent chance no one else would obtain that number, either. Meaning Republicans would be staring down the barrel of a brokered or contested convention in Tampa this summer.
Could it happen? Yes, it could, especially if, not to beat a dead equine, Romney loses Michigan on Tuesday. But will it happen? Don’t hold your breath, particularly since none of the putative white knights evince the slightest interest in putting themselves in the near-suicidal position of having to assemble and fund a general-election campaign on the fly with only 67 days left between the convention and November 6. And while a contested convention—at which the existing candidates all arrive in Tampa shy of 1,145 and the nomination is settled through backroom dealing—is more conceivable, the likeliest outcome of that would be the eventual coronation of Romney or Santorum. (Sigh.)
The question is, what will happen then—not just to them but to their party?
For Democrats, the answer is easy, reflexive, and comforting: Barack Obama wins. And at this moment, they have reasons to think so—starting with the historical precedents suggesting that the Romney-Santorum death match and the intraparty tensions it represents will undermine the eventual nominee. “Goldwater hurt Nixon in 1960, Rockefeller hurt Goldwater in 1964, and Reagan hurt Ford in 1976,” says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. “When splits become open in the party, it’s never a good thing.”
Then there is the current polling. The RealClearPolitics average of public surveys pitting the president head-to-head against Romney gives Obama a 4.8 percent lead, and 6.1 percent against Santorum. (Against Gingrich, the gap widens to 13.7 percent.)
Not one of the president’s presiding reelection gurus—David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Jim Messina—believes that, come November, their margin of victory will be as big as even the smallest of those numbers. All along, they have been operating from the assumption that the Republican base will be riled up and ready to turn out in droves on Election Day. That Richard Land is right when he asserts that, for all the lack of enthusiasm for the extant crop of candidates, no one should ever “underestimate the ability of President Obama to rally conservatives to vote against him.” That, given the still fragile state of the nation’s recovery, the high percentage of voters who continue to regard the country as on the wrong track, and the possibility that Iran or Europe might throw the world a nasty curveball in the months ahead, 2012 will be a closer-run election than 2008. That, in other words, it’s still perfectly conceivable that Obama might lose this thing.
If that happens, the implications for the Republican Party will be straightforward: It will be reshaped in the image of whichever of the candidates becomes president-elect. A Romney victory would signal the resurgence of the regulars, while one by Santorum would usher in an era of red-hot regnancy.
But if Obama prevails, precisely the opposite dynamic is likely to kick in: a period of bitter recriminations followed by a reformation (or counterreformation) of the GOP. This, please recall, was what many Republicans were counting on to happen in the wake of their party’s loss of the White House and seats in the House and Senate in 2008. Instead, Republicans seized on a strategy of relentless opposition to Obama, which proved politically effective in 2010 but left the party as bereft of new ideas, a constructive agenda, or a coherent governing philosophy as before. With Obama having looked beatable months ago, a botched bid to oust him—especially if coupled with a failure to take over the Senate—would usher in a full-blown Republican conflagration, followed by an effort to rise from the ashes by doing the opposite of what caused the meltdown of 2012.