I don’t want to perpetuate to any great extent last week’s story about the 2012 Santorum-Gingrich (or Gingrich-Santorum) “unity ticket” that never happened. But since TNR’s Nate Cohn went to the trouble of making the case that Romney would have, sooner or later, beaten either of these worthies, it’s worth remembering that when all this was going on, the real question was whether losing to Rick Santorum in Michigan might have put Romney in danger of being yanked off the stage in favor of an Establishment-dubbed late entry, particularly Jeb Bush. This is from a February 17, 2012 report from ABC’s Jonathan Karl:
A prominent Republican senator just told me that if Romney can’t win in Michigan, the Republican Party needs to go back to the drawing board and convince somebody new to get into the race.
“If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate,” said the senator, who has not endorsed anyone and requested anonymity.
The senator believes Romney will ultimately win in Michigan but says he will publicly call for the party to find a new candidate if he does not.
“We’d get killed,” the senator said if Romney manages to win the nomination after he failed to win the state in which he grew up.
“He’d be too damaged,” he said. “If he can’t even win in Michigan, where his family is from, where he grew up.”
What about Rick Santorum?
“He’d lose 35 states,” the senator said, predicting the same fate for Newt Gingrich.
We’ll never know if another stumble by Romney at that point would have reopened a rapidly narrowing window for a late entry in 2012. But it’s worth noting that Mitt was considered such damaged goods that he was for a while one primary defeat away from generating a full-fledged party scramble for a new candidate. The point about the “unity ticket” isn’t that Republicans might have nominated Santorum or Gingrich. It’s that a small lift for Santorum might have sent Mitt down the tubes, and the GOP into uncharted territory. That’s how weak their 2012 field actually was.