Haven't We Lived Through This Primary Before?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 11 2012 10:06 AM

Haven't We Lived Through This Primary Before?

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CONWAY, SC - JANUARY 06: Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L) and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (C) embrace as Romney's wife Ann Romney looks on during a campaign event at the Peanut Warehouse on January 6, 2012 in Conway, South Carolina. Romney won the Iowa caucuses and is now campaigning ahead of the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. (Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images)

Photo by Richard Ellis/Getty Images

I'm thinking of a Republican primary. It starts with a candidate (John McCain/Mitt Romney) who ran once before, came in second place, and won over the party's elite class without winning over its base. Other candidates, understandably unwilling to accept this, line up: An under-funded social conservative (Mike Huckabee/Rick Santorum), an elder statesman who's walked to the altar three times (Rudy Giuliani/Newt Gingrich), a libertarian who wants to bring back the gold standard (Ron Paul/Ron Paul).

The conservative base is displeased. In the year before the primary, it pines for a perfect candidate. At the end of summer, on (September 5/August 13), it gets him: (Fred Thompson/Rick Perry). The dream candidate immediately rises to the top of national polls, but collapses after lazy, distant* debate performances. When the primaries arrive, he's in single digits and reduced to attacking the front-runners. But in Iowa, he does just well enough to justify staying in the race.

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The social conservative (wins/almost wins, depending on what math you believe) Iowa. Flush with victory, eager to prove himself in all battlegrounds, he spends most of the next week in New Hampshire. But the surge can only take him from the margin of error to (13/9) percent of the vote. The old dream candidate, now a national laughingstock only known for a debate moment ("I'm not doing any hand shows"/"Oops") has already moved on to South Carolina. He flies to New Hampshire just to participate in a debate, deeply annoying the supporters of (Ron Paul/Buddy Roemer), whose candidate had worked harder there. He polls a pathetic 1 percent, but stays in the race. The field is crowded enough that a horrified base sees how the front-runner, who's won the endorsement of (Lindsey Graham/Nikki Haley), can win South Carolina with a plurality of the vote.

The Republican base looks at the wreckage and shudders. It can never allow this to happen ever again.

*Many people have pointed out that "distaff," which appeared there originally, doesn't make sense. I'd meant "distant" and been waylaid by autocorrect.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.