Disheartened conservatives, contemplating the nomination of yet another member of the Republican B-team (legacy division) might be breathing a sigh of relief after Saturday. Had Mitt Romney won South Carolina, the campaign would effectively be over.
Conservatives may be grateful for this reprieve. Yet they should also be asking: Why should they need a reprieve in a primary race for the presidential nomination of a party they overwhelmingly control? More to the point: What explains the string of mediocre Republican candidates who have turned Ronald Reagan's 49-state coalition in 1984 into the contemporary scramble to cobble together a Rovian Electoral College majority? Simply put, this is the natural outcome of a presidential nominating system of, by, and for the moderate Republican establishment-at the expense of the party's electoral success and political effectiveness.
What are the essential elements of this establishment-friendly nominating process? First, early primaries in idiosyncratic and politically moderate states with open caucuses or primaries that artificially inflate the standing of the establishment standard-bearer. Second, a "Super Tuesday" a month or so later that allows the establishment candidate to consolidate his advantage and effectively end any remaining conservative opposition.
When did this system first appear? In 1988, as it turns out. Eight years after Reagan fought on until his 1980 campaign moved more decidedly into the states that, then and now, most reflect the conservative Republican majority, the landscape changed decidedly. Counting a 17-state super-Super Tuesday exactly one month after Iowa, 29 states voted in first five weeks of 1988-and the campaign was over: game, set, and match to the elder Bush.
With some variation, the pattern established in 1988 has been repeated in the years since, with the lamentable results noted above. Could a different pattern have produced different results? Consider briefly how the 2012 campaign might have unfolded if, to make a single change, the Iowa Republican caucus had been limited to Republican voters. Based upon exit poll data, the new results would have been: Rick Santorum 29 percent, Romney 27 percent, and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul 14 percent each.
In this context, Santorum might have won a decisive victory among the not-Romney candidates in New Hampshire and cemented his status as the conservative alternative going in to South Carolina. Now add one more wrinkle: What if Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Utah had voted the same day as New Hampshire? How much less would Romney's win mean if balanced by losses in two or three other states? What if, in sum, Republicans actually chose their own candidate and the states that most reflect the Republican mainstream had the most influence on that choice?
There is a simple way to begin to make this happen. Suppose three solidly red states each passed an identical law to New Hampshire's, which requires its primary be held at least seven days before any similar contest. The resulting legal paradox would force New Hampshire into a choice between setting a date so early as to make its primary an absurdity or to share its "first-in-the-nation" status with more conservative competitors. A similar state (or two) with a closed caucus or primary might also challenge Iowa's position at the head of the line. Any state with a Republican legislature and governor can take these steps tomorrow-and conservatives should ask that they do so.