Douthat does just that, reminding we fickle pundits that while Romney was certainly a flawed candidate, the alternatives weren't exactly virtuosos in waiting.
If you think Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” sneer and Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments cost Republicans this year, imagine how the press would have covered the “war on women” debate if Santorum — who actually did speak out against birth control in the primary campaign — had been the top of the Republican ticket. If you think it was too easy for Obama to define Romney with a blizzard of negative ads over the summer, imagine how much material a Gingrich candidacy would have given the White House’s admakers to work with. If you think that Romney suffered from being perceived as too much like George W. Bush Part II, imagine if the Republican candidate in 2012 had been a yet more tongue-tied and more right-wing Texan governor whose debate performances made Obama’s Denver sleepwalk look Ciceronian.
“How much worse could it get?” Last asks. In the electoral college, maybe not that much worse. But in the popular vote? There I hardly think Romney was scraping bottom. His 48 percent of the vote wasn’t even close to the floor for Republican candidates this cycle: Out of eighteen high-profile Senate races, the Washington Post noted last week, Romney outperformed the party’s nominee in eleven of them, and was outperformed in only four — all in deep blue states he was never going to win anyway. “In five races,” the Post pointed out, “the GOP candidate under-performed Romney by at least nine points” — a number that includes not only Akin and Richard Mourdock, but also Republican candidates in Montana and North Dakota, “who both lost in states that Romney carried by at least 13 points.”
No, a Gingrich or a Santorum wouldn’t have ended up 13 points below Romney’s final total. But it’s very easy to imagine a summertime ad offensive from the White House knocking them down to Romney’s low ebb in the national polls — say, 43 percent or so — and then basically keeping them there, winning by 7-9 points in the end instead of 2-4.