Four years ago this week, I boldly predicted that Mitt Romney would inevitably be his party’s nominee.
It was admittedly not really the boldest of predictions. But at the time the press corps was obsessed with the revolving door of non-Romney “front-runners,” and many intelligent people were still convinced that Romney’s ideological deviations would cost him the nomination in the end.
They did not, and you could predict as much by using a very simple method: All of the other candidates were impossible to imagine as the party’s nominee, so by process of elimination, Romney it simply had to be.
2016 is very different: The GOP candidates are stronger overall, there’s no one with Romney’s hammerlock on money and endorsements, and Donald Trump and Ben Carson have more staying power than Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain.
But you can still play a version of the elimination game this time around.
Play it with me. No major party has ever nominated a figure like Trump or Carson, and I don’t believe that the 2016 GOP will be the first. Rand Paul’s libertarian moment came and went, Carly Fiorina seems like she’s running for a Cabinet slot, John Kasich is too moderate (and ornery about it), Chris Christie has never recovered from the traffic cones. Scott Walker and Rick Perry are gone. Ted Cruz has the base’s love, but far too many leading party actors hate him. Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee are boxed out by Carson and Cruz; Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham and George Pataki are boxed out by voter indifference.
That leaves Jeb! and Marco Rubio. But Jeb’s campaign has been one long flail. His favorable ratings are terrible, he and Trump topped a recent poll of Iowans that asked which candidate should drop out expeditiously, and as a Republican consultant pointed out for National Review this week, his candidacy looks like a pure creation of the super-rich: He has raised only three times as much from small-dollar donors as Lawrence Lessig, the good-government academic running a quixotic campaign against Hillary Clinton.
So that leaves Rubio. And unlike all the rest, it’s surpassingly easy to imagine the Florida senator as the nominee. He sits close to the party’s center ideologically, and his favorable ratings with Republicans are consistently strong. He’s an effective debater with a great personal story and an appealing style, and a more impressive policy portfolio than most of his rivals. He scares Democrats in the general election, and strikes the most politically useful contrasts with She Who Has Always Been Inevitable.
His past support for comprehensive immigration reform is a major liability, but Rubio has shown a lot more finesse on that issue than has Jeb, and one liability isn’t usually enough to doom a candidate who otherwise looks like a winner.
And that’s how Rubio looks right now. The betting markets have him as the most likely nominee, and – since this is quadrennial prediction time – I'll say that I agree: I think he’s the real front-runner, and I predict that he will win.
But I make that prediction gingerly, not boldly, because Rubio is a very strange sort of front-runner. He has never led a national poll. He is not cleaning up endorsements, nor raking in the cash: His recent fundraising totals were weak given his seemingly-enviable position. Nobody seems impressed with his early state organization. He’s earned a round of favorable coverage after each debate without making much progress overall.
It’s also easier to imagine him winning a national primary than it is to figure out which early state he'll win: He’s a little too moderate for Iowa, a little too conservative for New Hampshire, perhaps not quite combative enough for South Carolina … and so he might end up in the Rudy Giuliani-esque position of banking on his native Florida.
It is possible to win a party’s nomination without winning the earliest states, if the candidates who do win seem unelectable: That’s how Bill Clinton won in 1992, and Rubio’s candidacy has certain obvious similarities to Clinton’s.
It’s also quite possible that there will be a consolidation of money and support around Rubio that enables him to eke out a narrow Iowa or New Hampshire win, in which case he could very easily run the table thereafter.
But the question people keep asking – I had a smart political reporter ask me just the other day – is why that consolidation isn’t happening already. If Rubio is actually the front-runner, shouldn’t a few more big donors be drifting from Jeb’s camp into his? Shouldn’t a few more debate-watching voters be saying to themselves, and then to pollsters: The Donald is fun and I admire Carson, but let’s get real: I’m going to vote Rubio?
I think they will. I predict they will.
But in the event they don’t, I’m guessing that Mitt Romney is still ready to serve.