It was nice to dream, for a time, that general hatred of Mitt Romney and the surprising surge in popularity of Michele Bachmann would combine to prolong the GOP primary campaign until late in 2012. Maybe it would go all the way to a contested convention! Maybe Ron Paul would even have some delegates! Maybe Palin would enter late!
Alas, I am convinced by Jonathan Bernstein's argument that this will be wrapped up fairly quickly in the new year.
This is basically because the GOP elite still have a great deal of control over the process, and they know it's in their best interest to settle on a candidate early on:
I’d be watching such indicators as Mark Blumenthal’s regular
“Power Insiders”“Power Outsiders” polls and various endorsement lists. It’s still early — remember, Rick Perry has only been a fully announced candidate for a few weeks — but if one candidate starts pulling substantially ahead, you can be sure that Fox News coverage and other signals to rank-and-file voters will follow, and poll numbers will follow that. This isn’t to say that surprises are impossible once the actual voting gets underway; it’s just that if party actors — politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party organization officials and staff, activists, party-aligned media and interest group leaders — all settle on a candidate, then a few surprises from the voters aren’t likely to make any difference at all. As John McCain found out in 2000.
With Michele Bachmann basically out of the picture (barring an Iowa win, which she'd have financial difficulty capitalizing on anyway), the race is down to two candidates, both of whom are broadly acceptable, if not ideal, to both the GOP conservative and mainstream business elites. Theoretically, this two-man race could last a while, but it will most likely not be as drawn-out and arduous as the Obama-Clinton race of 2008, especially if one of the two manages a couple of early wins, consolidating elite support behind him.
Which is not to say that the consolidation of support will be fast or easy. Elites understand that Romney is more "electable" than Perry, but conservative voters have a great deal more affection for Perry than Romney. And some elites -- specifically the influential Wall Street Journal editorial page -- hate Romney with a passion. (And ex-Bush types seem to disdain Perry.)
But I'm guessing everyone will make peace with the nominee. Fox, as Walter Shapiro saw when he monitored the station for nine days, has Perry fever, but will obviously stand behind Romney should he prevail.