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Sorry, Santorum fans, but Romney will win this

By Ezra Klein,

Reinhold Matay AP The hallmark of a great work of history is that even though you know what’s going to happen, the narrative almost has you believing that things will turn out a different way — that the German people will reject Hitler, or that Abraham Lincoln won’t go to the play that night. That’s because great works of history show that things could have turned out differently, that the way things went is not the only way they could have gone.

The Republican presidential primary increasingly feels like a bad work of history. It feels like the author is straining to inject drama and uncertainty into a story that’s barreling toward an obvious and inexorable conclusion. And that conclusion is, of course, Mitt Romney.

Right now, all eyes are on Iowa, where the contest is between Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Let’s say fortune smiles on those of us who need to sell papers and Santorum edges out Romney. That would be front-page news all across the country. Santorum would be on the cover of every magazine. He would be booked for every political talk show. He would be the subject of every op-ed page. And yet, not a person out there — perhaps not even Santorum himself — would think for a moment that a Santorum victory in Iowa means that Rick Santorum will be the Republican nominee for president in 2012. Indeed, for all Santorum’s sudden strength, the InTrade betting markets give him a 4.5 percent chance of capturing the nomination. Some surge.

A Paul win would set up a more interesting ideological contest, but the result would be ever more foreordained. Santorum has friends in the Republican Party. Paul doesn’t. And having support in the party establishment matters enormously for capturing the party’s nomination. That’s likely why InTrade gives Paul a 4.1 percent chance of being the GOP nominee in 2012 — even worse odds than Santorum commands.

Rather than challenging Romney, Paul and Santorum are preventing a challenge to Romney. There is reason to think that a candidate like Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry could make a strong run at Romney if they caught momentum out of Iowa. But Paul and Santorum are squeezing those candidates out in Iowa, and since Romney is almost certainly going to romp to victory in New Hampshire, it’s much harder to see where a plausible not-Romney can score an upset victory that would actually change the underlying dynamics of the race. The strength that Paul and Santorum are showing in Iowa is, in other words, a boon to Romney’s chances, not a threat to them.

And once Romney begins racking up primary wins, he’s the nominee. The party establishment might find some sort of white knight to stop someone like Paul or even Gingrich. But the party establishment largely supports Romney. They may not love him, but they’re not going to go to war against him.

So for all the polls suggesting a competitive race in Iowa, for all the effort the media is putting into making this thing look interesting, I’m just not seeing it. At the moment, there looks to be only one way this contest can go. And that’s toward Mitt Romney.

But perhaps I’m missing something. Perhaps there’s a scenario I’m not seeing. If you think there’s a real chance this could play out differently, lay out your alternative in comments. If you turn out to be right, fame and fortune — or at least an admiring post on Wonkblog — will be yours.

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