Did we almost wind up with a President Gingrich and Vice President Santorum? Or President Santorum and Vice President Gingrich?
We learned Friday morning, via Bloomberg Businessweek's Josh Green, that a super-secret, and apparently quite serious, attempt was made to form a "unity ticket" last February between the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, as a last-ditch attempt to wrest the Republican nomination away from Mitt Romney.
At the time, Mr. Romney appeared vulnerable, and the Gingrich and Santorum campaigns believed if they could stop splitting the conservative vote, they might be able to beat him. Tellingly, the plan was ultimately thwarted by the inability of the two candidates to decide which one of them would get to be president.
It's an entertaining read, chock-full of quotes like this one from John Brabender, chief strategist to Mr. Santorum: "It would have sent shock waves through the establishment and the Romney campaign." Or this one from Santorum himself: "It could have changed the outcome of the primary. And more importantly, it could have changed the outcome of the general election."
But while it may be fun to hypothesize about, in reality we have to say there's little question this plan – had it somehow come to fruition – would almost certainly have failed.
True, Romney was a flawed candidate from the beginning, and was never much liked by the GOP's conservative base. But, seriously: he was far less flawed than either Gingrich or Santorum (or, frankly, any of the other candidates that took a shot at the nomination). Contrary to Texas Gov. Rick Perry's assertion last week at CPAC that Republicans lost the White House in 2012 because they failed to nominate a true conservative, we'd argue Republicans lost because they fielded an incredibly weak team of candidates.
Both Mr. Gingrich and Santorum had brief surges in the polls, but they also cratered as soon as the spotlight was fixed on them, amid scrutiny of – to name just a few examples – their consulting work and past indiscretions (Gingrich), or way-out-of-the-mainstream stances on issues like birth control and homosexuality (Santorum).
Not surprisingly, the math wouldn't have added up for them, either. As The Atlantic Wire's Philip Bump points out, if you went back and combined Gingrich's and Santorum's vote totals in all the GOP primary contests, they only would have taken an additional 125 delegates from Romney –meaning, he'd still have had well more than he needed to secure the nomination. And in the unlikely scenario that the Gingrich-Santorum "unity ticket" could have somehow improved on the combination of their individual performances and won the nomination, they almost certainly would have fared worse in the general election among independent voters, leading to a more lopsided loss.
Looking back at public opinion polling from the first few months of 2012, the lead for the GOP nomination bounced around frequently, but one area where Romney consistently dominated was "electability." And while that was often portrayed as a semi-problem for him – voters somehow voting with their heads instead of their hearts – well, we'd just point out that the head usually gets it right. Republican voters may not have liked Romney all that much, but they were smart enough to realize he would have the best shot against Obama.
As conservative columnist Noemie Emery put it this week, in a biting commentary in The Washington Examiner, Romney was "the last sane man standing in a field of conservatives whose credentials were lacking and whose personalities verged on bizarre." She went on: "Between Ronald Reagan (and Jack Kemp) and the new generation of Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, there were no appealing conservative figures, or none who could win on the national scene. Instead, against establishment types who were national figures, the conservative movement flung preachers and pundits (Pat Robertson, Alan Keyes, and Pat Buchanan), has-beens and losers (Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum), and others still worse (Herman Cain, for example), who on second thought lost even conservative primary voters."
The recent GOP "autopsy" report of what went wrong in 2012, and how the party can chart a path to victory going forward, may offer some sound policy suggestions for Republicans (it suggests, among other things, that they embrace immigration reform and take a more inclusive posture on gay marriage). But in many ways, the profile and charisma of the candidates matters as much – or more – than the platform.
The good news for Republicans is that the field for 2016 is already looking to be much stronger. From Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the GOP has a deep bench of younger candidates with strong political skills and the potential to both excite the base and appeal to a broader audience.
In 2012, that just wasn't the case.