In every contested primary since 1980, the establishment has had the decided advantage of settling on a candidate early while numerous conservatives fought for the right to be the establishment’s principal opponent long past the time when the race was actually decided. This phenomenon reached its peak in 2012 when the conservative base plowed through a series of increasingly unserious challengers searching for an alternative to Mitt Romney. As a result, the establishment unsurprisingly tends to win Presidential primaries without too much serious heartburn – the sole exception to this dynamic being when Ronald Reagan spent the better part of four years herding the movement conservative cats into his camp to challenge the establishment favorite George H.W. Bush in 1980.
Most likely, it looks like conservatives are going to fall into the same inevitable trap. No one has really spent the time laying the groundwork to become a consensus conservative candidate which makes sense in light of the fact that the best possible conservative challengers are still sitting office holders. But at least in this case the playing field might potentially be leveled. Jeb probably is the presumptive establishment favorite among the three, but Romney and Christie both have a significant pool of potential donors, political chits to cash, and enough ego to burn to make them unwilling to kiss Jeb’s ring early on in the contest, at least before he wins some actual primaries. They are, also, competing over basically the same pool of voters, as they have all flaunted Tea Party orthodoxy to the point that they will be unlikely to siphon votes from the crowd of conservative challengers.