Ross Douthat makes many good points in the column Joe mentions, but I'd register some disagreements. First, while Mitt Romney is the likely nominee he isn't quite inevitable. Has Rick Perry really shown any flaws that weren't apparent in George W. Bush circa 1999? The principal difference seems to be Perry's late entry.
With $17 million to burn, Perry can't be entirely counted out yet. That said, Perry is in freefall because both the main pillars of his candidacy -- the perceptions of his electability and his conservatism relative to Romney -- are crumbling. That brings us to Herman Cain. On paper, I'll agree that Cain doesn't seem like he should be the Republican nominee. But on paper, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman should have been top-tier candidates, so paper may not be worth the, uh, paper it's printed on.
If the primaries were held today, Cain would not only beat Romney in most of the South, but also in places like Ohio and Illinois. That's enough to at least make Cain a problem. The assumption is that his current poll numbers can't hold, that he'll be the latest conservative flavor of the month, and that he'll wilt under scrutiny. I think there are good reasons to think those things too, but just like in the case of the Pawlenty boomlet that was supposed to happen, I'd like to see real-world polling evidence bear this out before I take it to the bank.
Anecdotally, many Cain supporters have stood firm in the face of attacks on the 999 tax plan and their candidate's convoluted comments about abortion. If he has bonded with his supporters the way Sarah Palin did last time around, they may be hard to pry loose. Secondly, there is a certain fatigue among conservatives who have swung from Donald Trump, to Cain, to Michele Bachmann, to Perry, and now back to Cain again. This also includes people who have been soft supporters of Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, among other candidates. Some of these conservatives are ready to stay put, if only to ensure there is a single anti-Romney in the race.
If Cain's popularity holds, his biggest problem will be organization. Popularity can bring in money (Robert Stacy McCain reports that Cain's fundraising has already improved). But as Ron Paul discovered when he outraised all his primary opponents in the fourth quarter of 2007, it may be too late to significantly upgrade a campaign infrastructure. Cain will need leads big enough to overcome Romney's superior get-out-the-vote efforts.
All of the reasons Douthat gives for why Romney's inevitability against his Tea Party opponents raise obvious questions: Why then has he at various points trailed this cast of characters and why can't he ever reliably break 30 percent against them? Romney has real weaknesses and less margin for error than the frontrunners who came before him. If he loses Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida to the same candidate, he is in trouble. Is that a long shot? Yes. But it's not impossible.
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