Does Newt’s Collapse Clear The Way for Romney?

January 3rd, 2012

As the caucuses are just about to begin in Iowa, we need to face the possibility that this entire wacky Republican campaign has been the equivalent of what Shakespeare might have called “a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot signifying nothing.” To put it less melodramatically, as EJ Dionne did last week,

what’s most astounding is that a Republican contest characterized all year by melodrama and comedy now seems headed toward the most conventional and predictable conclusion possible.

Specifically, there is a chance that Mitt Romney just might win not only Iowa, but New Hampshire, which, if past is prologue, might secure the nomination for him. Perhaps more significant than the electoral victories is the total lack of viable alternatives to Romney for conservatives. To summarize the race, Perry effectively demolished his chances after appearing less intelligent than the village idiot, Bachmann turned out to be too crazy for even the GOP, no one seemed to mind that Herman Cain had never heard of a neo-con, but a few too many sexual harassment allegations did him in, no one is willing to make Ron Paul the Commander in Chief and, until last week, no one took Senator Santorum seriously.

The pattern of non-Romney candidate surges is now apparently continuing with the most recent not-Romney candidate to falter being Newt Gingrich, who just a few weeks ago looked like the not-Mitt candidate that would dog Romney for the rest of the race. But Gingrich’s descent turned out to be about as meteoric as his ascent was. Over the past few weeks, Gingrich has dropped precipitously in the polls as a barrage of Romney-allied Super PAC spending buried him in Iowa and (for whatever reason) Newt seemed incapable of responding to the attacks. In a period of less than a month, Gingrich went from the low 30′s to the low teens in Iowa as voters in the state learned that he was an erratic Washington insider who took money to lobby on behalf of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, supported the individual health care mandate and shot commercials with Nancy Pelosi warning about global warming.

The Gingrich surge has been replaced by the Paul surge, which increasingly looks in danger of succumbing to the Santorum surge. The Santorum surge is perhaps the most unlikely development of the campaign, and the fact that the former Pennsylvania senator (who lost by 14 points in his last statewide election) may be on the verge of becoming the Romney alternative must have Romney’s team popping champagne corks. If Newt Gingrich was (to put it mildly) an unlikely candidate to defeat Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are even less likely to pose a threat to him.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this race is the fact that Romney has not seemed to surge significantly across the country. Throughout the process, Romney has had a ceiling at about 25% both nationally and in Iowa and he seems to have maintained this ceiling throughout the process. In fact, his polling numbers are not far off from the 25% of the vote Romney received in the 2008 Iowa primary, but the key difference is that his opponents are now splitting the not-Romney vote, and a 25% vote share in this years election might be enough to propel him to a victory in Iowa. From Iowa, the race would then shift to the Northeast where Romney has surged over the past few weeks, with polls showing a significant bounce in New Hampshire, a state that borders Mitt’s homestate of Massachusetts.  To be sure, Romney would do well to expect the unexpected and there’s still a chance he could lose this one. Newt promised to turn all of his fire on Romney beginning today but this could turn out to be too little, too late. The pattern in this election has been that no candidate has been able to surge again after their initial surge was beaten back. Barring a major John Huntsman surge in the next week or so, that chance of anyone mounting a credible challenge to Romney looks slimmer and slimmer.

Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and Chris Christie must be having some serious regrets about not getting into this one.

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