The Next Conservative Campaign Must Begin Now

Barring some dramatic reversals of fortune, the 2012 GOP primary is on the verge of wrapping up, with Mitt Romney poised to win both South Carolina and Florida.  The movement of undecided voters, and refugees from crashed campaigns, toward Romney is unmistakable. 

Only a small portion of delegates will be awarded in these next two primaries, and the last two were held in very small states, but the Romney momentum is becoming irresistible.  He’s never been the first choice for conservatives, but oddly enough, they never really had a good chance of preventing his nomination.  Perhaps some sort of rear-guard action can be organized in the coming primary states to stall his momentum, but contributors to the other campaigns are going to become more reluctant to part with their dough if Mitt the Invincible conquers all four of the early primaries.  Electoral success and failure both come as avalanches in the primaries.

Aside from radically restructuring the primary schedule, what could have been done to obtain a different outcome?  I still don’t get why better than two-thirds of the country has to settle for reading “the handwriting on the wall” instead of playing a meaningful role in selecting the nominee, and the logic of open primaries grows more baffling with each election.  As long as we’re going to keep doing it that way, it seems strategically essential to field a candidate who can do well in the first few races.  In fact, it’s tough to survive without being able to win at least one of them, or at least eke out the kind of hair’s-breadth second-place finish Rick Santorum managed in Iowa.

It’s also essential for a candidate to maintain national appeal to the GOP electorate while putting together their state-by-state strategy.  A big problem with the late Huntsman campaign was its reliance upon tactics that alienated large portions of the national Republican base, in the interest of winning over independents and “moderates” in the first couple of states.  National success informs state races, which in turn shape the national narrative.  Both sides of this swirling yin-and-yang cycle must be mastered.  The alternative is either national campaigns that choke on the dust of the early primaries, or early primary wins that go nowhere – the fate of many surprise Iowa winners.

It is commonly said that Romney’s walking away with the GOP nomination because conservative support is fractured between different candidates.  Was there a moment when it could have been unified?  What mighty convocation of the Right could have selected one of the not-Romneys and spoken in the voice of Zeus to name him, or her, their standard bearer?  Who would they have chosen, and when would this convocation have been held? 

Looking back over the past year, it seems as if the ascendancy of Herman Cain presented the most tantalizing opportunity for unity.  He had charisma, private-sector business experience, a compelling personal story, and (let us not be coy) his race was a bullet point on his resume.  If Cain had been a better-rounded candidate, with a better campaign team, and that compelling personal story had (ahem) fewer hidden chapters, who knows what might have been?  It seems like a long time ago now, but it’s only been four months since Cain’s triumphant performance at the debate in Tampa.  The excitement surrounding him after that night was undeniable.

In the rise and fall of Cain, and to an extent in all of the not-Romney thunderstorms which have flickered briefly across this primary, there is an old lesson that conservatives never seem to learn: Campaigns must begin early.

Conservatives cling dearly to the cherished romantic ideal of Cincinnatus, the citizen-legislator who will step forward in the nation’s hour of need, and somehow win both the nomination and election without carefully cultivated political strength.  The skills and assets needed for political victory are toxic waste our champion must never have touched.  What self-respecting conservative wants to vote for a guy like Mitt Romney, who’s been running for President for six years now? 

But one of the reasons Romney is doing well is that he has been running for a long time.  The precise number of years that must be invested in such a pursuit is open to some debate, but rolling into the primary with a spotlessly apolitical resume and trying to “wing it” from there is clearly not a winning strategy.  In mid-September, Herman Cain was the man of the hour; by the first week in December, people were wondering why he ever bothered running.  A more skilled politician with better advisors might have been able to run that race much better.  Remember, Cain’s star was fading fast, from a general sense of cluelessness about certain important areas of presidential responsibility, before the sexual-harassment and extramarital affair allegations hit him.  That stuff only changed the timing of his departure from the race.

A defining attribute of the Romney campaign is that it has rarely seemed surprised.  Perhaps the intensity of the Bain Capital assault from Romney’s Republican rivals was unexpected, but you don’t get the sense Romney spent last week in closed-door meetings with shocked campaign officials, sheepishly explaining that he used to work for this private equity firm, and was compelled to fire a bunch of people.

Romney himself doesn’t always handle tough questions well – he still seems on the edge of a nervous breakdown when even the least hostile interviewers ask him about Romneycare – but his campaign has been well-organized in matters of both strategy and logistics.  Compare that to Herman Cain, the longtime, widely respected pro-lifer who needed four tries to explain his position on abortion, and whose staff was reduced to shock and panic by a Politico story they knew was coming for over a week.

Whether the next conservative campaign for President will be run in 2016 or 2020, it really should get under way now.  It clearly cannot be founded upon the presumption that Republican voters will automatically flock to the most conservative candidate.  It takes hard work and careful preparation to launch a presidential campaign.  The candidate should be vetted for game-over meltdown material long before the first debate.  The search for alternatives to the “Establishment choice” should not begin with the first debate. 

Private-sector freedom cannot be recovered without political victory.  There are plenty of staunch conservatives and successful businessmen out there.  A great conservative politician, on the other hand, is a rare breed, and we should stop expecting one to appear out of the blue when needed.