What rough beast, its hour come round at least, slouches towards Tampa to be nominated?
Mitt Romney’s win in Ohio last night was by the slimmest of margins. With 99.8 percent of precincts reporting, he captured 38 percent of the vote to Rick Santorum’s 37 percent, taking only 12,000 more votes than the former senator out of more than one million votes cast. To achieve his victory, Romney had to follow a method that has worked well in other states: Outspend your rival, in Ohio four-to-one, with heavily negative advertising.
This strategy works, but it has two downsides. First, by angering his opponents, he makes it less likely they will drop out of the race. Santorum and Gingrich, in their speeches last night, complained about Romney’s spending and cast themselves as David’s to his Wall Street-backed Goliath. Santorum and Gingrich both know that if they had not been outspent by such a large margin, they would have won states they have now lost. This does not make them more likely to step aside to allow Romney to begin his pivot to the general election any earlier.
Second, that pivot to the November race will be more difficult for Romney because his negative ads do next to nothing to increase his own favorability ratings with Independent voters who will prove decisive in the race against President Obama. In states like Florida, Michigan and Ohio, the only face of Romney those voters have seen is the snarling face at the end of his negative ads, proclaiming, “I am Mitt Romney and I approved this message.” At a deeper, but more consequential level, by failing to tell his own story and sketch in his own biography with these voters, he provides the Obama campaign with an opportunity to do that for him, and the result will not be pretty.
Campaigns, despite all their polling, are often insular organizations. They tend to focus on the next contest, as indeed they must, and will do what it takes to win that contest. “We’ll deal with the fallout afterwards,” is the mantra. They forget that most voters are not as plugged in as themselves, nor even as plugged in as likely primary voters, a small sliver of the electorate. Because the staff has been working on Romney’s behalf for six years, they lull themselves into thinking that the voters, also, know what they know about the man. This is a fatal mistake. Ask John Kerry. He wrapped up the nomination in 2004 pretty early in 2004, but he did not take to the airwaves to define himself, leaving that task to the Swift Boat liars who cast aspersions on his strong suit, his bravery and courage in Vietnam. Kerry never recovered.
Santorum had a good night, winning impressively in Tennessee with 37 percent of the vote to Romney’s 28 percent, and in Oklahoma by a smaller margin. He and Romney barely contested Georgia, Gingrich’s home state, but they combined to deny Gingrich the 50 percent he needed to turn the state into a winner-take-all event and the delegates will be allocated proportionately. (With 96.8 percent of the precincts in the Peach State reporting, Santorum had 19.6 percent of the vote, just below the threshold of 20 percent needed to join the delegate spoils from the delegate-rich Georgia.) More importantly, up next are caucuses in conservative Kansas this weekend, followed by primaries next week in even more conservative Alabama and Mississippi. It is doubt Romney will get much of a bounce out of his wins last night.
But, as long as Santorum and Gingrich are both trying to capture the conservative vote they are, in fact, dividing the conservative vote, making Romney’s plurality wins possible. In one of the ironies of the post-Citizens United world, candidates have an easier time of avoiding the day of reckoning in a losing campaign: when you can’t afford your campaign plane the next morning. That used to be when candidates drop out, but now they call their SuperPAC bigwigs and the plane is paid for, the ego-trip continues, the conservative, especially the white, evangelical, vote remains divided and Romney can eke out a win with more than six-in-ten voting against him. There is always the hope that your opponent has a banana peel in his immediate future, and the race goes on.
Some conservative pundits have likened the longer than usual nominating process to the slugfest between Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008, but there is no comparison. There was no fight for the soul of the Democratic Party in 2008. Yes, there were moments of pique on both sides, but most Democrats regretted that they couldn’t vote for both candidates, not that they failed to trust either. In Tennessee’s exit polls last night, Romney came in third among white evangelical voters and got only a quarter of those who said they support the Tea Party. In Ohio, Romney got less than a quarter of white evangelicals and exactly 25 percent of Tea Party supporters. His sole southern state win to date came last night in Virginia, where both Santorum and Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot. (Florida doesn’t count because Romney lost the parts of the state that are southern.) Shame on Gingrich and Santorum for their lack of organization, but Romney’s camp should not read much into the Virginia results. The base of the GOP does not like him. And, as Chris Matthews pointed out, if you think it is fun to be a president when your base distrusts you, go talk with Jimmy Carter.
Of course, campaigns are not only about candidates, they are about events. Romney may be winning ugly and he may be winning by razor thin margins, but if gas prices continue to climb, or the Iranians close the Straits of Hormuz, or Greece spins out of control, or Obama slips on a banana peel, being the GOP nominee will be a good thing no matter how you got there. Which is the final irony. Romney is at the top of the pack today because of his organization and his money, but if he does indeed solidify his victories last night and secures the nomination, he will have to hope that history intervenes to save his general election effort. He cannot run to the center without confirming conservative fears he is not one of them and reinforcing moderate fears that he has no true compass. Romney remains uniquely incapable of pivoting from a primary to a general election.