Super Tuesday is over and here’s the headline:
Romney Has A Good Night*
There’s always an asterisk with Mitt Romney. He is the asterisk candidate. Despite winning more states and more delegates than the other candidates on Super Tuesday (including Ohio), you get the distinct sense that not only is this race not over but also Romney is still very vulnerable.
He still hasn’t won in the all-important south (Virginia wasn’t contested because Santorum and Gingrich weren’t on the ballot and Florida’s demographics do not make it a typical southern state). And he won Ohio by one percent point despite spending millions of dollars in negative advertising against Rick Santorum.
Evangelicals aren’t sold on him and neither is the Tea Party. And have you seen what’s coming next on the primary calendar? Kansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Those are tough states for him. Simply put, Mitt Romney is a walking asterisk (with good hair).
Meanwhile the Santorum campaign is in the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve mode. If they had Romney’s money, they would’ve won Ohio, could’ve been able to do even better on Super Tuesday, and would’ve been the front-runner by now. Santorum had a good night but he won’t start having great nights until he accumulates serious money to challenge Romney and build a more robust organizational structure.
Not being on the ballot in Virginia cost him important delegates not to mention not being able to file for delegates in some parts of Ohio. This is an age-old lesson in how money and organization matter. Message is important but Romney is proving that you don’t have to have the perfect candidate and message to win. It helps but cash and organization can do the trick, too.
And that’s exactly why Santorum and Gingrich aren’t going anywhere. It would be one thing if they saw Romney as a candidate who had a compelling message that was captivating Americans. If that were the case, they’d probably get out of the race. After all Santorum says he’s a “team player” right? But because they see Romney as a guy that’s winning only because he’s outspending everybody there’s no real substantive reason to leave the race.
Sure, Republicans want to beat President Obama but if you were running for president, would you get out of the race if there were still nearly 30 states that still haven’t voted, including big ones like Texas and California?
Let’s also remember that Santorum or Gingrich has never had that coveted one-on-one battle with Romney. Yes Santorum battled it out with Romney in Ohio and Michigan but Gingrich was still in the race and most likely took votes from Santorum. If and when one of them gets out of the race (not likely anytime soon), then we could have one more turn in this political soap opera. But will it be too late by then? (Cue the soap opera music organ)
So what’s the path ahead? Look for Santorum and Gingrich to ramp up the narrative of how Romney and his money might help in the GOP primaries but it will do him no good against President Obama and his money machine in the fall. Also, look for Santorum to really hit Romney even harder on RomneyCare. The calculation is that eventually voters will see Romney as a flawed nominee.
But quite frankly, until Santorum and/or Gingrich have the money to compete with Romney in these crucial states, it will be hard to change the minds of voters. Just look at the exit polls in Ohio. The number one attribute they are looking for in a candidate is someone who can beat Obama and Romney is winning that group by HUGE margins (53%-27% in Ohio). Until that number gets much closer, not much is going to change.
One other note: Mitt Romney clearly thinks he can win without courting evangelical and Tea Party support. But if he would make more efforts in this area, he has the potential to drive up some of his numbers among these groups in key states and begin to change the narrative that he can’t appeal to these voters.
Yet Romney has never made a serious, authentic effort. He’s never had any skin in the game. He courted them in 2008 when he positioned himself as a social conservative candidate but four years later he could take them or leave them. Romney may end up winning the nomination without much support from them because GOP voters are in a mood to defeat Obama at all costs.
But the warning is this: The evangelicals you dissed in the 2012 primaries may still end up voting for you in the General Election in 2012 because they want Obama out, but they probably won’t bring a friend and won’t put the energy into grassroots organizing. That will be very important come the fall of 2012 in an election that will most likely be decided at the margins.