Is Mitt Romney nomination really inevitable anymore?

Mitt Romney has tried to paint his nomination as inevitable. But Newt Gingrich hopes to siphon support from a limping Herman Cain campaign, making Romney win anything but inevitable. 

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signs autographs after speaking at a campaign stop, Tuesday, in Medley, Fla.

Is a Mitt Romney nomination really inevitable?

The former Massachusetts governor is trying to create that impression. And certainly, he’s the only GOP candidate with money, organization, and consistent performances in polls and debates.

On the other hand, those same polls have highlighted Romney’s inability to go above about 25 percent among likely primary voters – and much of the other 75 percent seems to gravitate toward anybody but him, convinced that he’s not a true conservative.

“He’s a fragile frontrunner,” says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. “If the anti-Romney side can’t unite around someone, then yeah, he’s got a very good chance. But if the anti-Romney side can unite around someone, it will be tougher.”

With Herman Cain now “reassessing” his campaign, that possibility looks stronger.

Though Mr. Cain speaking in Ohio Wednesday vowed to stay in the race, his candidacy is limping. And Newt Gingrich – already the frontrunner in most polls – could benefit more than Romney from a Cain demise.

Recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) surveys probed Cain supporters’ second choice, and 37 percent of them picked Mr. Gingrich, compared with just 13 percent who chose Romney. (Fourteen percent opted for Michele Bachmann, and 12 percent went with Rick Perry.)

And Gingrich has been doing everything he can to court those voters.

“It’s no accident that Gingrich had the quasi-debate with Cain, and was extremely deferential to Cain,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, referring to the Lincoln-Douglas style debate the two men had earlier this month. “That was an extremely shrewd move on Newt’s part. He got some publicity and appealed to Cain constituents.”

Still, another survey, from Reuters/Ipsos, calls the conventional wisdom into question. Analysis of that data, an Ipsos pollster said Wednesday, shows that a Cain departure would benefit Romney and Gingrich equally, giving them both about a 3 percent bump.

Polls, of course, don’t tell the whole story.

Gingrich trails far behind Romney in fundraising, and his campaign lacks Romney’s organization.

And Gingrich is far from an ideal candidate for conservatives to coalesce around, with plenty of personal and political baggage of his own.

Just a few months ago, his campaign seemed on the verge of death, with little money and a mass exodus of senior staff.

Numerous other “anti-Romney” candidates – including Governor Perry, Cain, and Representative Bachmann – have soared only to crash.

But timing is everything.

“Gingrich is a smart guy, but he hasn’t repealed the laws of political gravity,” says Professor Pitney. “The question is when gravity is going to take hold. Is it going to happen later this month or deep into the spring? That makes a difference.”

Also an unknown: Gingrich’s ability to put together a solid campaign organization quickly. His staff says his fundraising has soared along with his poll numbers, but he still lacks the infrastructure of the Romney campaign, as well as its deep pockets.

And there are other factors, including whether another candidate could still have a surge (Perry, again? Rick Santorum?). What about Ron Paul – who also has a consistent, loyal following? 

While he’s unlikely to be the nominee, Representative Paul may win a lot of delegates, and certainly will siphon off some support from both Romney and Gingrich.

Iowa – the first contest, now less than five weeks away – is likely to be one of the toughest for Romney.

The polling averages tracked by Real Clear Politics currently have Gingrich at 24 percent and Romney at just under 16 percent, and the most recent poll, by InsiderAdvantage, is even worse for Romney: Gingrich, at 28 percent, has more than double the support of Romney, at 12 percent.

But polls are just one factor. “In order to translate support in surveys to support at the ballot box [Gingrich] needs a campaign infrastructure, which he doesn’t yet have,” notes Pitney.

And Romney’s strategy has always been to let multiple “anti-Romney’s” bloom in a state like Iowa, and then to decisively win New Hampshire, Florida, and a few other early states.

Writing for Fox News yesterday, Joe Trippi, a democratic political strategist who has worked on numerous presidential campaigns, outlined the ways this strategy may fail, opining that “Romney is in big trouble.”

Mr. Trippi compares Romney’s campaign to Walter Mondale’s, in 1984, in which he barely eked out a victory over Gary Hart – a similar scenario where voters were also searching for an alternative candidate.

“If the 60% of New Hampshire voters who are looking for someone else start to consolidate around the Iowa Caucus winner as the other candidate, Romney could well lose his New Hampshire stronghold,” Trippi wrote. “Defeat there would end his campaign. And I think it’s a distinct possibility.”

He also notes that Romney lacks the one thing that ultimately saved the nomination for Mondale: support and loyalty from his party’s base.

At this point, most analysts agree, the nomination is still Romney’s to lose – but that’s more due to his opponents’ weaknesses than his strength, especially among the more extreme primary voters. If the Gingrich surge continues, Romney's situation will become even more precarious.

Writing in the conservative Red State blog Tuesday, Erick Erikson said that “the most volatile Republican race in decades” is already settled at this point – in "Not Romney’s" favor. “The reason the race is so volatile,” Erickson writes, “is that ‘Not Romney’ is not on the ballot making a Romney nomination not just possible, but probable.”

If Romney somehow loses this nomination, the conventional wisdom says that the big winner is President Obama – who most polls show doing far better against a more conservative opponent, like Gingrich. It’s one reason why Obama’s team is spending so much cash and energy attacking Romney right now.

But that thinking doesn’t always play out, cautions Professor Goldford of Drake University.

In 1979, President Carter’s campaign team were “salivating about the possibility of running against Ronald Reagan,” remembers Goldford. “You have to be careful what you wish for.”

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