CONSERVATIVE commentator William F. Buckley once set out a rule for the Republican nomination: “pick the most principled conservative who can win”.
Since 1968, the GOP has largely got the Buckley balance between electability and ideology right. In 2000, they chose the electable and moderately conservative George Bush over conservative and unelectable Steve Forbes or the electable but that bit too moderate John McCain in 2000 – then picked the latter over arch-conservative Mike Huckabee in 2008.
The rule famously collapsed in 2010, when Tea Party activists mobilised behind ideologically pure but unelectable candidates. This, above all, led to the Democrats holding the Senate in an otherwise disastrous year.
In 2012, the Buckley electable conservative is clearly Mitt Romney – and everything points to him being the nominee.
Principled? Not very. Comparisons between his healthcare reforms as Massachusetts governor and President Barack Obama’s controversial bill, which he now opposes, seem valid.
But on the question of electability, Romney is hard to fault. He is polling well against the President across the key swing states, and figures coming out of solidly Democrat states like Connecticut and Maine suggest he could run the President a close race there. Quinnipiac released figures from Virginia last week showing Romney narrowly ahead of Obama, while the latter enjoyed a comfortable lead over other candidates. Michigan, where Romney’s father served as governor, tells a similar story. Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling declared a fortnight ago “Obama/Romney is a toss up, Obama has an advantage on the rest of the Republican field”.
Above all, Romney looks like a President to the voters who matter. His private sector experience at Bain Capital sends a message to independent voters in key suburban demographics that he “gets” how to boost the economy. His machine is also exceptionally well-funded (not least from the billionaire candidate himself) and has been battle-ready since 2006.
Iowa has never been about winning for Romney. It is not Buckley rule country. His priority was to ensure his serious conservative opponents, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who might have the cross-demographic support and resources to mount a nationwide challenge later in the primary season, lost. Indeed, the most recent polling shows Gingrich with a lead in South Carolina and Florida (the next primary states after Romney’s bulwark of New Hampshire) and tied with Romney nationally.
A win for maverick candidates like Rick Santorum or Ron Paul, who lack the resources and organisation to beat Romney across the country, will play to the latter’s advantage. This is especially so for Santorum who, though much hyped, is averaging 4 per cent nationally.
Irrespective of whether Romney places first, a win for any outsider will leave the former Massachusetts governor in a nomination race with a candidate who cannot win it nationwide – and the Republicans with the candidate who can beat Obama in November. Whatever the theatricals tomorrow morning, the vulnerability of the President to the Republicans’ “Buckley” choice will remain the real story.
Mark Gettleson is head of research at PoliticsHome.com and senior political analyst for Dods Engagement.