Last night, Mitt Romney was looking for one, or better yet, two victories in the southern states of Alabama and Mississippi so that he could finally declare “Game Over!” Instead, Romney not only lost to Rick Santorum in both states, he also lost to Newt Gingrich, coming in a close third in both states. In Alabama, as of this morning, with 98.4% of precincts reporting, Romney is only trailing Gingrich by about 1,300 votes, so he might yet come in second there. But, no matter the final tally, instead of “Game Over,” the GOP nominating contest is now “Game On.”
There is no doubt that the eventual nominee of the GOP will win both Mississippi and Alabama. The problem is that the race now goes on to Illinois, where Cairo is closer to the heart of Dixie, geographically and culturally, than the Romney campaign would like, and then to Louisiana which is likely to look a lot like her southern neighbors. Just how much cheesy grits will poor Mitt have to eat? On that point, I wonder if the problem with grits is that they are southern or that, known by different names in different cultures, e.g., polenta, grits are a staple of peasant cuisine throughout the world. Whatever else he is, Mitt is not peasant. And, that is still Mitt’s real problem. He lacks the common touch. He doesn’t feel anyone’s pain. He can’t connect with the average guy on the street who is increasingly the backbone of the GOP.
I say “guy” advisedly. The GOP is set to watch the gender gap widen this year. In the wake of Mr. Limbaugh’s outrageous remarks, an issue that might have helped the GOP nominee, religious liberty, seems to guarantee alienating affluent, independent suburban women, precisely those whom Romney not only will need in November but among whom he might be expected to do well. The issue of religious liberty and the HHS mandates might still help some GOP congressional candidates in culturally conservative districts like Bart Stupak’s old district in Michigan or Kathy Dahlkemper’s in Pennsylvania, but it will be a killer for a GOP presidential candidate in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Charlotte.
The more immediate problem for Team Romney is this. How often does the GOP base have to say it? They don’t like Romney. Yes, he came in third, which is bad enough. (His win in the Hawaii caucuses does not change the narrative. Fewer people voted in Hawaii yesterday than cast their ballots for Ron Paul in Mississippi.) But, look at the numbers from a different angle. In Mississippi, 70% of the GOP primary electorate voted for someone not named Romney. In Alabama, 71% voted for someone other than this supposed front-runner. And, that angle also makes us reconsider his “wins” in Michigan and Ohio. Yes, he won those states in close contests but in each of them, 59% and 62% respectively, cast their votes for someone else.
I am reluctant to trust the exit polls because, early in the evening, CNN reported that they showed Romney winning Mississippi, then a few minutes later said the exit polls actually showed a much closer race and, finally, the actual vote count showed Romney trailing badly. But, nonetheless, if we consider only the broadstrokes, and not the minutiae, the exit polls have some value. 55% of Alabamans said that Romney was not conservative enough to be the nominee and 52% of Mississippi voters said the same. That does not bode well for Romney, but those who think Romney is not conservative enough are unlikely to bolt to President Obama come November. They may have to hold their nose to vote for Romney, but vote for him they will – Unless, of course, they become dispirited and decide to stay home. No candidate can win without their base. The more Romney struggles, the longer the primaries go on, the more he is perceived in more states as not being conservative enough, the more necessary it will become for him to shore up his base by picking a hard right running mate. Sarah Palin – Don’t turn off your cell phone!
The numbers that should really be worrying Team Romney, and thrilling Team Obama, are the former Massachusetts’ governor’s inability to connect with working class voters. In Alabama last night, according to the exit polls, among those who make less than $50,000 per annum, Santorum took 36% of the vote to Gingrich’s 29% and Romney’s 26%. Conversely, among those making more than $100,000 per annum, Romney won easily with 36% of the vote, to Santorum’s 31% and Gingrich’s 22%. At a time when the “One Percent” has become a populist mantra akin to “Storm the Bastille!” the One Percent has discovered a new designation: Romney’s base. But, one percent doesn’t win an election, and Romney inability to connect with working class voters remains a huge obstacle. For these voters, the economic difficulties of the past few years have been real, not theoretical, costing them jobs and homes not low-performing investment portfolios. Some of them, enough of them, voted for Obama last time round because they wanted to see the economy improve. The economy, at long last, is beginning to turn around but maybe not in enough time for these voters to conclude that Obama’s policies are working for them. These voters should be prime targets for the GOP this November, and Romney has demonstrated precisely no aptitude for being able to connect with them.
What to make of Santorum? With all the money in negative ads being thrown at him, he still pulled of two wins last night. But, he needs to get Gingrich out of the race and it is far from clear that Gingrich intends to head for the exits. Here is where Gingrich’s historical sensibility counsels different objectives. On the one hand, if Obama wins again, the Democrats can consolidate health care reform, have a dominant say in tax reform, and continue to help the country move away from its addiction to fossil fuels and towards a greener energy future. But, in terms of the future of the GOP as the vehicle for conservativism, does it help the conservatives to win this nomination with a deeply flawed candidate like Santorum and lose big, paving the way for the ascendancy of the moderates in 2016? Or does it make sense to let Romney, another deeply flawed candidate, win the GOP nod, fall flat on his face, and pave the way for a Tea Party ascendancy four years hence?
Oops – I did it again. I started to write about Santorum and ended up writing about Gingrich. Which points to what seems to be a problem for Santorum: He just isn’t very interesting. He reminds me of the neighbor you want to have: conscientious, keeps his garden spotless, picks up after his dog and pitches in on “Clean the Park” day. But, you don’t want to actually get stuck in conversation with him at a cocktail party because once you get past the warm bonhomie, you find pure, unadulterated sanctimony, unleavened by an interesting mind or great learning, a man whose political platform can be described in a word: Nostalgia. Santorum is to American politics what EWTN’s Mother Angelica is to Catholicism: A spokesperson for the 50s, an advocate for turning back the clock to simpler times, a person so terrified by the present, he cannot look forward, only backward. And, like Mother Angelica, Santorum is so histrionic in his terror of the present, he has trouble persuading anyone who does not share his sense that America is going to hell in a handbasket. Difficult to see how that message gets anyone to 270.
The GOP has a royal mess on its hand. After four years coddling the extremists in the Tea Party, after four years of obstructionism in Washington, after tolerating the lies and innuendos about Obama’s birth certificate and his religion and his “socialism” and his intellectual dependence on anti-colonial theorems, they deserve the mess they have wrought and have no one to blame but themselves.