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Five lessons learned from the Republican presidential race

at 04:01 PM ET, 02/29/2012

Eleven states have cast their votes in the Republican presidential nominating contest. Ten more will do so in six days time, the biggest single day of voting in the GOP race.


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves at his election night party in Novi, Mich., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Now then seems like as good a time as any to take three big steps back and look at what lessons the first two months of votes have taught us about the Republican race.

Below are the five biggest lessons we’ve learned in the race to date. (And, yes, all lessons learned come in groups of five. It’s just how it works.)

1. Conservatives aren’t picking up what Mitt Romney is putting down.

In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor tried to sell himself as a social conservative. It didn’t work. This time around he has tried to sell himself as a fiscal conservative. That approach has worked far better — aided by four years of a still-struggling economy — but it’s now clear that Romney is simply never going to be the choice of conservatives.

In Michigan, roughly three in ten voters described themselves as “very conservative”; Romney took 35 percent among that bloc as compared to 50 percent for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. (He did win “somewhat conservative” voters by 19 points over Santorum.)

Time and time again in early states — from Iowa through South Carolina and into Michigan — exit polling has shown Romney losing among conservatives who simply don’t see him as one of them. One number is particularly striking; in Iowa one in four voters said that the most important attribute for them in a candidate was that he/she was a “true conservative” — Romney won one percent (not a typo) of those voters.

Romney is hamstrung in two ways with conservatives. First, his 2008 campaign left many on the party’s ideological right with a lingering sense that Romney was simply telling them what they wanted to hear, not what he believed. Second, Romney, unlike Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has always kept one eye focused on the 2012 general election — meaning that he is far less willing to throw red meat to the conservative base than his rivals.

Romney said as much in a Tuesday press conference. “It’s very easy to excite the base with incendiary comments,” he told reporters. “We’ve seen throughout the campaign that if you’re willing to say really outrageous things that are accusatory and attacking President Obama, that you’re going to jump up in the polls. You know, I’m not willing to light my hair on fire to try and get support.”

And, he may not need to. Arizona Sen. John McCain was certainly no conservative darling but wound up as the party’s presidential nominee in 2008. But, the unwillingness among conservatives to line up behind Romney has made his road to the nomination that much more rocky.

2. It’s a Super PAC world. We’re just living in it.

At the start of the 2012 campaign, super PACs were a somewhat new arrival in the world of campaign finance. (Ah, those days of innocence! It was, in the words of the Wu-Tang Clan, so much simpler then.) Everyone knew super PACs had the potential to be major players in the nomination fight but no one suspected they’d be as central to the race as they have become.

The ad spending in Michigan tells the story. Romney spent roughly $1.5 million on TV ads in the state over the course of the primary campaign while Santorum dropped just north of $883,000.

Both of those numbers fall well short of the $2 million that Restore Our Future (a Romney-aligned super PAC) and the $1.3 million that Red, White & Blue Fund (a Santorum aligned super PAC) dropped on ads in Michigan.

The new super PAC reality is even more obvious when it comes to Gingrich. Without a series of cash infusions from billionaire Sheldon Adelson to a Gingrich-aligned super PAC knows as Winning Our Future, it’s hard to see how the former House Speaker would have remained a relevant factor in the race. In South Carolina, the only one of the 11 votes held to date that Gingrich has won, he spent just $630,000 on television ads. But, Winning Our Future, the Adelson-backed group, dumped $1.6 million worth of commercials on the Palmetto State.

What super PACs have done is fundamentally alter the calculus for candidates as they weigh whether to continue on in a race. It used to be that if you couldn’t raise enough money from a broad base of supporters to keep going forward, it was a sign that your time to drop out had come. Now, all a candidate has to do is convince one rich person that continuing in the campaign is the right move. That person signs a $5 million check and a candidate’s viability is ensured for another month.

Welcome to the brave new world of super PACs.

3. Barack Obama is Mitt Romney’s biggest ally

If you believe the proverb that the enemy of my enemy is my friend — and we do — then you understand why Romney is still the most likely Republican nominee.

As we noted above, Romney isn’t the first (or often even second) choice for many conservatives. But what’s kept him at the front of pack in the race to date is that Republican voters badly want to beat President Obama and believe Romney is the best able to do so. It’s not that they like Romney so much (they don’t), it’s that they loathe President Obama far more.

From Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina, Florida and beyond, no fewer than three in ten voters have said that an ability to beat President Obama is the most important attribute in their decision about which candidate to vote for. (The high, which came in South Carolina and Florida, was 45 percent; the low was 31 percent in Iowa.)

And, Romney has won massive margins among that electability crowd. In Michigan, he won those who said electability was the most important characteristic for a candidate by a whopping 61 percent to 24 percent margin over Santorum. In Arizona, Romney’s carried the electability vote by 34 points.

The attacks directed at Romney from the Obama campaign then are actually strengthening the former governor’s hand in the Republican primary. After all, you don’t attack the guy who you want to face in the fall, now do you?

Romney’s current situation brings to mind the 2004 Democratic presidential primary when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry emerged as the nominee not because the base loved him but rather because they hated President Bush and saw Kerry as their best bet to defeating him. (That didn’t work out so well.)

Romney has benefited — in a major way — from that sort of thinking through the first two months of voting.

4. Debates Matter. A lot.

In past presidential contests, the narrative of the race has largely been driven from events in the early primary and caucus states. Obama’s victory in Iowa, for example, set the tone for everything that was to come in the 2008 Democratic race.

Not so this time around. The narrative has been, from the start, entirely nationalized due in large part to the 20 — yes, 20! — Republican presidential debates so far in this election.

The debates have served as critical turning points on several occasions. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s fumbling, bumbling, stumbling “performances” — and even that may be too kind — in the debates proved to the Republican electorate that he was simply not ready to be president. Gingrich’s pugnacious presence in the debates turned him from an afterthought into a frontrunner — twice. Without the Republican debates, it’s hard to imagine Herman Cain rising to the lofty level he briefly attained in the contest.

Viewed broadly, the debates — all 20 of them — have had a sort of leveling effect on the field. While Romney’s money and organizational prowess is far superior to anyone he is running against, the number of debates have given his opponents a (relatively) huge national audience where they can make their own case.

Imagine a political world with no Republican presidential debates. (We shudder to think.) Is there any doubt that Romney would have already locked up the Republican presidential nomination by now? Not in our mind.

5. Longer isn’t necessarily better

The conventional wisdom after the 2008 election was that a long primary season wasn’t a bad thing — in fact, it could be a very good thing. After all, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama slugged it out all the way into June and Democrats still won the White House. And, there’s a good case to be made that running real primary campaigns in every state in the country helped register and excite Democrats, a critical component of Obama’s sweeping victory.

Conventional wisdom is, of course, right until it isn’t anymore. And this protracted Republican primary race seems to have (re)proven the fact that the longer a primary goes on, the worse it is for the party and its eventual nominee.

Romney has been forced to move to the ideological right to beat back the Santorum challenge — witness his revamped tax plan unveiled last week — and that re-positioning has, not surprisingly, hurt his numbers with independent voters.

Even as the Republicans slug it out, President Obama’s numbers have experience a steady rise. While Romney and, to a certain extent, Santorum, have done their best to keep the focus on Obama even while fighting for the GOP nod, it’s a virtually impossible task. Inevitably, the GOP candidates get drawn into intraparty issues — contraception! Democratic crossover votes! — that independent and swing voters could care less about. Meanwhile, Obama hones his middle class message and presents himself as the adult in the room.

There’s no obvious end in sight for the Republican race. And, as of today, that’s a very good thing for President Obama’s re-election prospects.

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