What has seemed at different times as if it would be a dramatic and idiosyncratic nomination fight now might end up being about as interesting as watching paint dry. It appears to be a virtual certainty that Mitt Romney will be the nominee. The only question is whether we pundits will be able to drop that “virtual” from sentences like the preceding one sooner rather than later. In 2008, it became conventional wisdom that it was good for Barack Obama to have to run a marathon against Hillary Clinton, and that view was probably correct then. But a long contest could be painful for Romney for two reasons that will resonate throughout the fall.
To begin with, a long nomination contest will force Romney to cling to ultra-conservative positions far longer than he’d probably prefer. He’d obviously like to pivot away from base placation as quickly as he can. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Ron Paul, who has some money and certainly nothing better to do, hangs around. And let’s say that Rick Santorum, after performing well Tuesday, gets a little money and becomes the conduit through which social conservatives (nearly half of the GOP electorate) can pressure Romney to take them seriously.
In the Obama-Clinton battle, you did not by and large see the two Democrats trying to assuage the concerns of the liberal base. Yes, Clinton had to become antiwar. But by early 2008, a large majority of the American public was antiwar, so that was hardly a lefty position. Instead, Clinton and Obama mostly fought over a voting bloc that Democrats have been losing by between 15 and 20 points in recent years: the white working class. Remember Clinton drinking a shot of whisky in that Pennsylvania bar? Obama preposterously trying to bowl? They spent weeks, months really, trying to be and relate to what most in the pundit class love to call real Americans, because that was where Clinton thought she could take Obama out.
In other words, it wasn’t merely the duration of the 2008 race that toughened Obama up. In fact, even though the fight lumbered along until early June, Obama essentially won the nomination on Feb. 19, the night he won the Wisconsin primary. He wasn’t going to lose, and there was no meaningful drama about that. The drama rested in the question of whether he could find a way to connect to middle America, develop a cogent economic vision, and broaden his appeal beyond liberals in the base who liked his antiwar position and who fell for the “we are the change we have been waiting for” rhetoric (like me!).
On top of that, there was the Jeremiah Wright episode, when Obama had to disavow a black mentor, and the infamous “guns and religion” fracas, on which he also had to do some fast talking to try to convince white working-class people that he didn’t see them as laboratory mice. So the 2008 Obama-Clinton primary fight, I would argue, actually forced Obama away from the base in a pretty big way. That—not merely the number of rounds in the fight—is how the long race helped him.
A long primary fight involving Romney, Paul, and Santorum would do the opposite to Romney. Santorum would force him to tread gingerly around the theocratic issues, such that Romney would end up trying to sound like James Dobson. Paul, by talking up his isolationism, would goad Romney into sounding like Dick Cheney. Neither of those men being especially beloved outside their respective factions of the GOP base, that isn’t where Romney wants to be over the course of the spring.
The second reason Romney wants a one-round fight is corollary to the first—namely, that the longer he has to spit out obviously inauthentic talking points, the phonier he’ll look, to both base and swing voters. In addition to that, some unpredictable thing is bound to happen. In 2008, no one thought in January that by April the fight would be about who could eat more Polish sausage. If the race is somehow still being fought in March, it will almost surely be because Romney just hasn’t been able to close the deal for some reason, and that alone will be a sign of weakness.
And that’s the heart of it, really: a contest that’s any longer than Florida (Jan. 31) will reinforce the view that Republican voters just really don’t want this guy. They’re going to have to take him, because the others are in various ways absurd, except Santorum, who is not absurd but also not exactly electable nationally. But they still might wait well past the proverbial third date before they let him in the bedroom, and the longer they withhold their affections, the worse off he’ll be for the fall.