Longtime readers have heard me harp on Mitt Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate for several weeks now, so last night’s results, in which Rick Santorum beat the Mittster in the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses, and in the largely meaningless primary in Missouri, likely did not surprise you. (Well, Colorado surprised me – but not too much). Keep in mind, however, that because the punditocracy has been peddling the Romney-inevitability narrative for so long, Romney’s losses are a surprise to them. (Remember CNN’s Will Cain prattling on about Romney’s “breakthrough” among conservatives in Nevada? Some breakthrough!) And that means they will inevitably overreact to the Rickster’s victory by proclaiming that we now face a new electoral landscape, with Mitt suddenly vulnerable.
This is nonsense, of course. Romney remains what he has always been: a flawed front-runner – but the front-runner nonetheless. This is not saying he can’t be beat. Nevada notwithstanding, he has never demonstrated to me that he can expand his base much beyond the numbers he pulled in 2008 and I trust I have cited enough data to have persuaded you of this even before yesterday’s results. Again, his root problem is the authenticity issue, and we saw that on display last night, in his concession speech, where he introduced a new theme: his father’s humble roots, and once again trotted out that “I’m not part of Washington” line. Neither really works for him. His father may have been from humble roots, but Mitt assuredly is not. And the reason he is not a career politician is not for lack of trying; he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1994, served a term as Massachusetts governor, and has been running for president for five years. Against this backdrop his “I’m a man of the people” claim rings slightly hollow.
But let’s not over react and suddenly anoint Santorum as the new frontrunner. To begin, the low turnout in yesterday’s caucuses suggest that Rick did not exactly energize the base. In Colorado, turnout dropped from about 70,000 in 2008 to roughly 65,000 yesterday, and it was also down in Minnesota (I don’t have final turnout figures there as yet, but with 95% of precincts in, about 48,000 votes were counted, compared to 62,000 in 2008.) So it’s not as if Santorum’s wins were the product of exciting voters the way that Gingrich did in South Carolina. The Missouri vote, as I noted last night, is very misleading because of a) the exceedingly low turnout one would expect in a beauty contest with no delegates at stake and b) Gingrich was not on the ballot. In short, as you might expect of a social conservative, Santorum has done best in low turnout caucus states that tend to be dominated by activists, but he has not done well in the bigger primaries that attract the less committed voters. Until he demonstrates broader appeal, I’m not going to turn in my Tom Brady Patriots jersey for a sweater vest quite yet.
So where does the race stand? Just where it was before yesterday: Mitt is the weak frontrunner who faces an extended battle for the nomination, but who will remain the frontrunner if the Republican base doesn’t rally around a single alternative. Note that we can’t be sure of the delegate count until the final votes are tallied in Minnesota, but no matter what happens Romney will remain in the delegate lead. It may be more instructive at this point, however, to look at the popular vote totals. To date Romney has won about 1.1 million votes, compared to about .8 for Gingrich and only 430,000 for the Rickster. Paul trails the field with 305,000 votes. I think that’s probably a relatively accurate barometer of their strengths as candidates right now.
The race now heads to Maine, which concludes its caucus this Saturday. I expect Romney to hold on there, but it will be interesting to see how much support Paul receives. The underplayed story of the race so far, I think, is how poorly Paul has performed in the caucus states. He finished third in Iowa, third in Nevada, second in Minnesota and – at this point – will finish last in Colorado. He has vowed to take the race to the convention, and he still may do so – but the idea that he is going to arrive there with a huge chunk of delegates accumulated in the caucus states now looks increasingly farfetched.
Gingrich, meanwhile, is right where we expected him to be: treading water during the month of February while he waits for the campaign to move to more favorable locales. The punditocracy is speculating that Rick has replaced Newt as the non-Mitt but the data as yet don’t support that conclusion. In national polls, Santorum remains in third place behind Gingrich, although he may get a boost in the national standings, which remain relatively fluid, from yesterday’s results. The Rickster may also benefit from the Obama administration’s recent ruling that health insurance plans must cover birth control and from a backlash among social conservatives responding to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals 2-1 decision overturning California’s ban on gay marriage. In the long run, however, this is still an election that will turn on the economy more than social issues.
After Saturday, the road ahead leads on February 28 to Arizona and Michigan, both states in which Romney is expected to do well. (Mitt won Michigan in 2008 and finished second to McCain in Arizona). While Arizona is a winner-take-all state, Michigan allocates its delegates in more proportional fashion, using a combination of winner-take-all at the congressional district level and proportional allocation statewide. Given these differences, look for Rick to ignore Arizona and instead try to steal some delegates in Michigan from Mitt by making his populist economic pitch. In the interim, however, Romney will load up the big SuperPac gun and take dead aim at Rick who, by virtue of his two terms as Senator, has a long and inviting voting record to attack.
Bottom line? I expect Mitt Vader and the Romney Empire To Strike Back with all the force the Dark Side can muster against Young Rick VestWearer. The next two weeks won’t be pretty.
And then comes March 6. May the Political Force Be With You.