Every few weeks a new “anti-Romney” emerges in the Republican primaries.
Last July, Rep. Michele Bachmann emerged as the darling of the Tea Party. She appeared on the cover of Newsweek with crazy eyes, and that was that.
Texas Governor Rick Perry jumped into the race and appeared to be a substantive challenger to Mr. Romney. With massive fundraising capacity, a record of economic growth, rugged good looks and a natural charm, Mr. Perry looked to be following the George W. Bush path to the White House.
Then he opened his mouth and his campaign collapsed.
The former CEO of Godfather Pizza, Herman Cain rose to take the lead in the Republican primary, until stories about sexual harassment came out and he withdrew from the race. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had a surge in momentum, until withering attack ads from Mr. Romney’s Super PAC reminded Iowa voters exactly why he was the former Speaker of the House.
Briefly, Rick Santorum led the alternatives after a tie in Iowa, but with a lack of dollars to finance a real run in New Hampshire – and a social conservative message with no resonance in New England – he fell behind.
Newt Gingrich proved tenacious and was resurrected in South Carolina, but when the attack ads started his campaign flagged in Florida. Disorganized, personalized and off-the-cuff, the Gingrich campaign approach – Newt says stuff off the top of his head in front of cameras – is not made to last.
In the latest shocker of the campaign, Mr. Santorum re-emerged as the most potent threat to Mr. Romney, winning three primaries.
So what is going on here?
First of all, the Santorum surge is unlikely to last.
Almost no negative advertising ran against the former Pennsylvania Senator in the latest three states, whereas both earned and paid media are vicious toward Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich at present.
Furthermore, the negatives against Mr. Santorum are legion. This blog has produced 21 different attacks on topics from his inability to win in a Pennsylvania Senate race to his support for spending earmarks to his extreme views on abortion.
Even with an overall field of damaged candidates, Republican voters are clearly not happy with Romney as a nominee.
But they aren’t happy with anyone else either.
The “W.” years saw a gradual splintering of the Republican coalition. Social conservatives grew angry that there was precious little action on abortion and other core issues. Fiscal conservatives were appalled at the deficits and debt. Foreign policy hawks were disillusioned after Iraq. Moderates had been effectively chased from the party, and liberal Republicans had migrated out long ago.
The 2008 Republican primary saw a similar cycling through of potential nominees. Remember Fred Thompson? Mike Huckabee? Rudy Guiliani? Each led the field briefly.
John McCain was able to win the nomination because he was the least offensive to these various groups. But he was also uninspiring to them. The Sarah Palin experiment was about rallying the base, and while it did succeed in energizing Republicans, it damaged their appeal to independents.
In 2012, the field is even more splintered. The only thing uniting Republicans is a revulsion to Mr. Obama and the Democrats. But there are major differences in policy and style between the elements of the Republican coalition that are not easily bridged.
Mr. Romney remains the most electable candidate, trailing Mr. Obama by 4 points, compared to Mr. Santorum’s 8 points or Mr. Gingrich’s 10 points.
He enjoys a huge fundraising advantage and the resources of early money.
The party establishment is firmly behind Mr. Romney, a major advantage in complex events like Super Tuesday.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Romney’s negatives are out there. He is a known quantity after 2008 and national coverage this year. Mr. Santorum, Ron Paul and – to a lesser extent – Mr. Gingrich have room to fall with exposure.
Despite media hype that this is a close race, Mr. Romney remains by far the most likely nominee.
But he will likely emerge from a nomination process that is witheringly negative and profoundly disturbing to the Republican coalition.
A war of attrition against Mr. Santorum will result in the demoralization of the Republican social conservative vote, a block of fickle voters Karl Rove was obsessed with mobilizing after the near- loss in 2000.
A sideshow battle against Mr. Paul will leave the libertarian wing of the party profoundly alienated, and with it many younger potential Republican voters who may have turned up in November.
Mr. Romney’s need to move to the right to face off against his new challenger will again call into question what he really believes, hurting him among independents.
Make no mistake, the winner last night was the current occupant of the White House.
In the last month, InTrade’s prediction market has seen the chances of Mr. Obama being reelected jump to 59 per cent from 50 per cent. Today, it’s saying 61 per cent and still rising.
Anything can happen in an election, and frequently does. But the trend at present is for a wounded Mr. Romney to lead a divided and demoralized Republican Party into an uphill campaign in November.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested the Michigan primary had already taken place.