Why Aren't GOP Elites Pushing to End the Primary?

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With a Romney nomination quickly becoming a mathematical certainty, the wise men of the Republican Party still aren't calling on his rivals to get out of the way.

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At this point, the Republican nomination is effectively a foregone conclusion. No matter what happens in Tuesday's primaries in Alabama, Mississippi, and Hawaii, Mitt Romney's delegate advantage is rapidly becoming prohibitive. To make their case that the race is still competitive, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul have instead resorted to increasingly far-fetched and baroque scenarios involving state GOP conventions and faithless delegates. Santorum's campaign, in a delegate-strategy memo released to Politico Monday, essentially admits that he can't win a majority of delegates in advance of the GOP convention: His only hope is to deny Romney a majority and capitalize on the chaos of a divided convention. This may be technically possible, but it is extremely unlikely.

Given all this, and given the increasing consensus that the divisive, ongoing primary is hurting the Republican Party's chances in November, you'd think there would be a major effort on the part of party elites to push the remaining candidates out of the race and speed Romney's coronation. But no such push appears to be taking place, either in public or private. Why not?

Three reasons:

1. Pressure? These guys? Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul are not seen as particularly vulnerable to being leaned on by the GOP establishment, to put it mildly. In different ways, all three have styled themselves in their campaigns as populist warriors against the party elites. Gingrich claimed in his Georgia victory speech last week that "the national elite -- especially in the Republican Party -- had decided that a Gingrich presidency was so frightening that they had to kill it early." Santorum's stump speech includes a similar damn-the-Man passage, and Paul has essentially based his whole career on refusing to go along with Washington conventional wisdom. Any public push for the three to step out of the way would just give them another occasion to point to their outsider status. 

2. Romney's not really the establishment candidate. His rivals have strained to paint Romney as the favorite of the GOP elites, and he certainly has more support than they do from that quarter. But that support has been gradual and grudging. The truth is that the officeholders, lobbyists, donors, and GOP wise men who constitute the Republican establishment have always been leery of Romney. From George Will to Haley Barbour, Mitch McConnell to Karl Rove, the biggest names in the party are officially neutral, and many have been critical of Romney. It's another of the many instances in which Romney finds himself in a no-win situation: He gets all the grief that comes from being the establishment's candidate but none of the benefits.

3. They're terrified of antagonizing the base. The 2010 uprising of the Tea Party issued a stern brushback to GOP elites who sought to influence the process: Anything they said only made it worse. From badmouthing Christine O'Donnell to doubting Sharron Angle, each pronouncement of the Washington establishment was greeted with jeers and pitchforks. This time around, Sarah Palin has explicitly framed her vote for Newt Gingrich as a matter not of actual support for Gingrich, but of defying the establishment's prerogatives and expectations. In the face of this sort of blowback, the voices of the institutional GOP would just as soon sit on their hands and let nature take its course. But it's hard to imagine them waiting all the way through August.

Image: Win McNamee / Getty Images
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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