Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com
With Rick Santorum having dropped out of the race, Mitt Romney is apparently the Republican nominee for POTUS, barring a “black swan” event swooping down out of nowhere.
Why has the Republican Party taken so long to decide upon its presidential nominee? The two most common explanations given have been the structure of the primaries and the absence of an “ideal” candidate. Those are valid reasons, but there is one more that generally has been overlooked: The Republican Party itself is in a state of flux, and its new identity has not yet gelled.
The Tea Party message of smaller government has been dominant in the GOP primaries. However, even though the old guard, moderate, country club, establishment—choose whichever cliché you prefer—wing of the party was eclipsed in the nominating process, it remains a formidable force in Washington. This was evident in the recent Senate vote on repealing all subsidies to all private energy companies (conventional and renewable): 19 Republicans voted with every single Democrat against abolishing the subsidies. Also, the very fact that the most conservative budget proposal put forth in Congress by Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)—a plan that, while obviously superior to the Obama alternative, will increase federal spending and debt—shows the present limits of the Tea Party’s influence.
The Republican Party may indeed be evolving into a truly conservative party, but the transformation is far from complete. Many rank-and-file Republicans have been becoming more conservative at different rates, so it is not surprising that the candidates struggled to find the “sweet spot” where one could establish himself as the ideal 2012 Republican.
Although many Republicans were dismayed and disheartened as the primary race dragged on, there is an excellent chance that this sense of malaise will quickly dissipate now that the race is essentially over.