Daniel Larison makes two points about my column yesterday. The first is that it is hard for the conservative vote to be unified, because a.) there are so many conservative candidates and b.) as he puts it, “When voters are being asked to choose between two versions of Bushism, as they have been asked during the last two months, there is no obvious reason why they should go with the one with fewer financial resources and far worse organization.”
But the conservative vote was more consolidated in 2012 than in previous primary cycles. While various candidates claimed the anti-Romney mantle at different times, it generally belonged to one candidate at a time. Whenever someone claimed that mantle, the other conservative candidates receded into the background. Arguably, the main reason there was any meaningful split in the conservative vote this year was the split decision in Iowa and South Carolina, which temporarily created confusion about who was the most viable challenger to Mitt Romney. Iowa launched Rick Santorum and South Carolina kept people behind Newt Gingrich.
As the primaries wore on, however, Santorum increasingly consolidated the conservative vote even with Gingrich in the race. Outside the South, Gingrich was frequently running fourth behind Ron Paul. Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee all suggested Santorum could win Southern states even with Gingrich pulling a large share of the vote. By Louisiana, Gingrich was starting to fade even in the South. This consolidation process arguably didn’t happen early enough to make the race more competitive, but it clearly happened.
The differences between Romney and the anti-Romneys may not have been robust enough for Larison (or me), but they were enough for Republican primary voters. Millions plainly were siding with the candidate “with fewer financial resources and far worse organization” simply because he wasn’t Romney. Which brings us to Larison’s next point: “As much as Santorum might have wanted to portray himself as a challenger similar to Reagan in 1976, there is virtually no contemporary issue that divides Santorum and Romney. “
To the extent that this is true, it’s because virtually nobody tries to run as a liberal in the Republican primaries anymore. Even this campaign’s exception, Jon Huntsman, had a generally conservative record and platform. Almost all Republicans position themselves as conservatives. But the primary voters don’t always simply accept the candidates’ self-description.
The contrast between Romney and Santorum wasn’t over their contemporary positions but their past records. Santorum had been a pro-life champion in Congress for 15 years; Romney had been pro-choice as recently as 2004. Santorum opposed TARP (though he was conveniently out of Congress at the time) while Romney supported it. Santorum opposed Obamacare-like programs with individual mandates at both the state and federal level, while Romney signed Massachusetts’ Obamacare-like program into law. Again, the contrasts may not have been as sharp as Larison or I would have liked (Santorum backed Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind while being identical to Romney on foreign policy) but they were sharp enough for most Republican primary voters.
At the end of the day, the question is: Could a conservative candidate have done just slightly better than Santorum in Michigan and Ohio? For that matter, could one have avoided the split decision in Iowa and South Carolina? Either scenario would have been all that it took to produce a genuinely competitive race. Maybe that’s due to Romney’s relative weakness, but I think the mood among the Republican base also played a large role.