If Cuyahoga and Hamilton Counties had counted their votes earlier in Ohio, Super Tuesday would have had a different feel. Romney won big in those counties (they encompass, respectively, the Cleveland and Cincinnati areas) and if they had gone on the board at, say, 9:30, Romney would have been ahead for the rest of the night. Combined with his other victories, things would have looked good for him.
But it did not work out that way. After Romney’s victories in Vermont, Virginia and Massachusetts were called early, the next hours belonged to Rick Santorum, who carried Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota. (And, yes, Newt Gingrich carried his home state of Georgia.) It didn’t seem a triumphant night for Romney, and his lackluster victory speech did not add much luster to the evening. There was also his seemingly jocular but actually dismissive comment on his opponents. “Thanks, you guys, nice races.” He might as well have added, “You can leave now.”
Once again, Santorum showed his strength among religious voters, particularly evangelicals. And there were religious voters aplenty in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Once again, there were class lines in the GOP race. (On yet another night, Romney’s strongest income group, according to the exit polls, consisted of Republican voters earning over $200,000 a year).
Yet in the end, Romney pulled out a victory in Ohio. Back to back, Santorum -- whose case for his electability is based on a claimed ability to win the big manufacturing states - lost the manufacturing powerhouses of Michigan and Ohio. Yes, Santorum was vastly outspent. Yes, he refused to roll over before the Romney juggernaut. But, unless something very strange happens with absentee ballots, Santorum lost.
What Santorum did discover when he gave his semi-victory speech was a set of themes that, had he focused on them a week before Michigan, might have carried him to victory. He went hard after Romney not only for supporting a health care mandate in Massachusetts, but also for recommending his state’s plan as a national model. Romney has persistently denied he did this, but the emergence of a 2009 USA Today op-ed piece showed clearly that Romney’s claim does not add up. Santorum also played the class card rather effectively -- “This campaign is about the towns that have been left behind - whole also attacking “the elites in Washington.” With most of the March contests in territory that should be friendly to Santorum (notably (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Kansas), he will fight on. His problem will be that Newt Gingrich plans to fight on, too. Romney’s best chance is these states will be a split of the strongly conservative vote.
Yet it’s inescapable that Romney keeps winning the big ones. He wins ugly, he wins close, but he wins. He is also piling up delegates. Because those Ohio counties reported so late, he didn’t get full credit for that this evening. More than is usually the case, the impact of this Super Tuesday will depend a great deal on spin. Over the next couple of days, Romney has to win the interpretation wars. Voters, not pundits, should decide elections. But for a brief moment, the pundits, the consultants and the spin doctors will have more influence than usual - and, truth be told, more than they should.