Wonkbook: Is Romney stronger than he looks?

at 07:57 AM ET, 03/07/2012

For three guys who profess to not like the media very much, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich are really making all our dreams of a long, unpredictable primary come true.


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, greets supporters as they arrive at their Super Tuesday primary watch party in Boston March 6. (Gerald Herbert - AP)
Super Tuesday "was the first night since South Carolina in which Romney could have probably put an end to the competitive portion of the nomination struggle by winning enough states," wrote Jonathan Bernstein. "He almost certainly didn’t do that." He won enough to stay in the lead, and enough to keep racking up delegates, but not enough to push Santorum or Gingrich out of the race or to credibly argue that he's wrapped up the nomination. And the next few weeks bring primaries in states where Romney is expected to struggle, like Alabama and Mississippi.

But it remains a fairly safe bet that Romney will be the nominee. Which raises the question: What kind of nominee will he be?

At the moment, I'm going to put my money on "a stronger one than seems apparent right now," for a couple of reasons. For one thing, there's too much extrapolation from current trends. Yes, the economy has gotten better, and President Obama's numbers have improved, over the last few months. But there's no guarantee the same will hold in the summer. Remember that in 2011, the beginning of the year brought four straight months of strong job growth -- as strong or stronger than what we've seen so far in 2012 -- which then sputtered out. If the same happens later this year, Romney will suddenly look a lot stronger, and Obama a lot weaker, than many have come to expect.

Second, it's possible that the GOP primary plays to Romney's weaknesses, while the general will play more to his strengths. He's got a big, top-heavy campaign that has been forced into asymmetrical warfare with smaller, lighter opponents. The dynamics of the primary are forcing Romney to unconvincingly adopt unpopular opinions that contradict what he's done and said in the past in order to persuade an electorate that's unusually concerned with purity. But in the general election, he'll be facing another big, top-heavy campaign, and he'll be able to run towards the center. Perhaps he'll perform better under those conditions.

Third, Romney's coalition might end up being broader than it appears. As Ron Brownstein notes, "Romney carried most voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians in each state except Oklahoma." He's struggling against evangelical Christians and voters who self-identify as "very conservative." But will these constituencies really stay home against Obama? And, if they do come out, there's the prospect that the very qualities that turn them off of Romney -- at least, if you assume their issue is ideological rather than religious -- could help him make inroads with the more moderate voters who will ultimately decide the election. Again, for the exact reason he's weak in the primary, he could be stronger in the general.

The counterargument, of course, is that Romney is struggling against very weak candidates and campaigns, he's being forced to take a lot of positions that will be anathema to the wider electorate, and that implies he's going to get torched by a stronger candidate and campaign. A fun game: Watch the speeches on any given GOP primary night and then head to YouTube and call up the speeches Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton gave on that same night in 2008. Here, for instance, is Obama's Super Tuesday speech from 2008. It doesn't make Romney look good.

Even so, though Romney has the worst poll numbers of any presidential nominee in recent history, Obama has the worst poll numbers of any incumbent president running for reelection in recent history. And we remain a closely divided country with a very fragile economy. Right now, Obama is leading Romney by more than five points in the Real Clear Politics polling average. But I would be very surprised if, in November, the final margin between the two candidates is more than three points in either direction.

Top stories

1) ROMNEYMENTUM! "Mitt Romney pulled out a narrow victory in the critical Super Tuesday battleground state of Ohio, giving the former Massachusetts governor an important boost after he and Rick Santorum divided up Republican primary votes and traded victories in states across the nation...The close contest in the Midwest culminated a dramatic political night in which Romney won Republican presidential primaries in Virginia, Vermont, and Massachusetts, the state he served as governor, and the Idaho caucuses...Santorum snagged an important victory in Tennessee and also won Oklahoma and North Dakota. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, boosted his struggling campaign with a victory in his home state of Georgia. In, all ten states from Alaska to Massachusetts held primaries or caucuses on Tuesday, making it the most important day so far in the battle to select a Republican candidate to face President Obama in the November election. Results had yet to come in from Alaska." Jerry Markon and David Fahrenthold in The Washington Post.

@ron_fournier: Delegate math is unforgiving: Hard to see anything but Romney v Obama

@PatrickRuffini: Delegates. I repeat. DELEGATES. Miss that? D-E-L-E-G-A-T-E-S.

@daveweigel: Who's ready for the ILLINOIS PRIMARY YEAAAAAAAAAH?

It was the economy, stupid. "Regardless of the financial condition of their state, voters in Tuesday’s Republican primaries considered the economy the top issue influencing their choice. And even though the debate in the last few weeks has often involved other issues -- like contraception, or women in combat, there was very little evidence of a gender gap among the leading candidates in several of the major states in play on Tuesday, and very few voters mentioned abortion as a deciding factor...In Ohio, unemployment is at 7.7 percent, lower than the national rate of 8.3 percent. Still, more than half of voters in Ohio considered the economy the most important issue; about a quarter pointed to the federal budget deficit. About three-quarters said they were very worried about the direction of the nation’s economy." Majorie Connelly in The New York Times.

BALZ'S TAKE: The primary is hurting Romney. "Super Tuesday confirmed anew that Mitt Romney remains the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination, but his slow, unsteady march is coming at a steep price. As he advances toward victory in the primaries, he is losing ground in the general election. Nomination battles often strengthen the winner, but some take a toll. Rarely is there a straight line between March and November that predicts the outcome of a general election. Still, Romney is in worse shape at this point in the campaign than virtually all recent previous nominees. Demographically, his image among independent voters, the most critical swing group, is more negative now than it was when the primary battle began. He could be hurt among women. He is in trouble with Latinos, a growing part of the electorate that is tilting even more Democratic than it was four years ago. He is not as strong as he needs to be among working-class white voters, among whom President Obama has been consistently weak." Dan Balz in The Washington Post.

BROWNSTEIN'S TAKE: Romney's coalition is non-evangelicals. "Romney carried most voters who did not identify as evangelical Christians in each state except Oklahoma. The flip side was Romney’s continuing struggles in most states among key components of the GOP’s populist wing -- particularly the overlapping circles of voters who identify as either evangelical Christians or very conservative ideologically. As in his 2008 run, Romney’s difficulties with evangelicals were most pronounced in the South, where the doctrinal suspicion of Mormons is greatest: He won just one-fifth of evangelicals in Georgia and one-fourth in both Oklahoma and Tennessee." Ron Brownstein in The National Journal.

2) House GOP leaders are looking to trim the budget. "Under increasing pressure from conservatives, House GOP leaders are poised to lower budget levels below what appropriators have said they need to pass spending bills this year. At the same time, some of the conservatives demanding deeper spending cuts said they can come around to voting on spending bills if the budget resolution comes out to their liking and the bills conform to their number. How low conservatives can set the bar remains to be seen, but in closed-door meetings this week, Republican leaders and GOP members of the Budget Committee are working to hash it out...Republican Members on both sides of the spending battle said not passing a budget is not an option. What does seem assured is that leaders are backing away from a budget of $1.047 trillion, the number they negotiated in July’s Budget Control Act and which members of the Republican Study Committee deemed unacceptable." Daniel Newhauser in Roll Call.

3) John Boehner will deliver an ultimatum to his members on the transportation bill. "House Republican leaders are set to dump the mess of a highway bill in the lap of conservatives. In a closed-door meeting planned for Wednesday, top Republicans are going to deliver a tough but simple message: Continue to stand against the bill and you’re opposing conservative policy that will fix the flawed way Congress funds road-building and energy production. Join the team -- support leadership’s plan to pass a House bill -- and you can be part of the solution...To hear top Republicans talk about it -- privately, of course -- they say they’ve quietly neutralized a series of thorny provisions that formed pockets of opposition to the highway bill. Problems with oil drilling provisions were narrowed. The ban on double-decker horse trailers -- which riled up aggies across the country -- is close to being improved. Same goes for roads through Oklahoma Native American land and harbor dredging. Funding mass transit will, once again, come out of the general fund." Jake Sherman, Adam Snider, and Burgess Everett in Politico.

4) Watch for the long-term unemployed in Friday's jobs report. "Economists expect another decent month for US payrolls when the numbers come out on Friday, but another question is becoming even more important to understanding the state of the economy: have more Americans started to look for jobs again?...The sharp decline in the unemployment rate, from 9.1 to 8.3 per cent over the past five months, had more to do with a falling rate of participation in the labour force, from 64.1 to 63.7 per cent of the population, than any dramatic increase in employment. How fast people return to the job market is crucial for the electoral prospects of President Barack Obama - he has been boosted by the falling unemployment rate and will suffer in the short term if it rises again - but also for the long-term health of the US economy. Concern is rising that the long periods some US workers have been out of a job is eroding their skills, confidence and consumption in ways that do serious harm to their prospects and to the broader recovery." Robin Harding in The Financial Times.

@TheStalwart: If NFP comes in at 300K plus, I predict my twitter feed will break.

5) Obama unveiled new housing initiatives. "President Obama on Tuesday unveiled two housing initiatives intended to assist members of the military and Americans with government-insured loans. In his first major news conference of 2012, Obama announced a new plan to cut refinancing fees for any loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The president also outlined a new agreement with banks to review foreclosures for members of the military that have taken place since 2006 and provide compensation to anyone who wrongfully lost a home...Here’s how the FHA plan would work: Currently, the federal government offers a program to allow borrowers with loans backed by the FHA to refinance at a lower cost. But the fees for refinancing have kept many borrowers from taking the government up on its offer. The administration estimates that an additional 2 million to 3 million homeowners could end up refinancing under its program." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

@BCAppelbaum: Obama administration continues to identify new ways to help homeowners without Congress. I wonder how much more juice is in that orange?

Top op-eds

1) Super PACs were the big winners last night. "The polls haven’t closed, but here’s one thing we already know: The big winners of Super Tuesday are the super PACs and big-money politics. In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, the super PACs’ farcically described 'independent expenditures' were far greater than the spending of the candidates’ campaigns...The supposed 'independence' of the super PACs reaches barely a legal fiction. Former aides or fundraisers run the entities. The campaigns alert donors as to which 'independent' entity is designated for support...Ahead of Super Tuesday, the Romney campaign spent little money outside of Ohio. Not surprisingly, his 'independent' super PAC ramped up its spending in the other states to spearhead the Romney attack. The Gingrich campaign took this to the point of absurdity, running no advertising in the Super Tuesday primaries while his super PAC, Winning Our Future -- funded almost entirely by one donor -- carried the banner, spending $3.7 million in the primary states." Katrina Vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post.

2) Humiliating teachers undermines trust. "When I dropped my kids off at school last week, I had a hard time looking their teachers in the eye. The New York City government had just posted their performance assessments online, and though I'm a strong supporter of teacher accountability and effectiveness, I was baffled and embarrassed by the decision. So-called value-added rankings--which rank teachers according to the recorded growth in their students' test scores--are an important indicator of teacher effectiveness, but making them public is counterproductive to helping teachers improve. Doing so doesn't help teachers feel safe and respected, which is necessary if they are going to provide our kids with the positive energy and environment we all hope for. The release of the rankings (which follows a similar release last year in Los Angeles) is based on a misconception that 'fixing' teachers is the solution to all that ails our education system." Wendy Kopp in The Wall Street Journal.

3) Patients should only pay for drugs that work. "It's hard not to be outraged by the fact that the United States spends $2.6 trillion per year on health care, far more than any other country, and has no better medical outcomes to show for it. Everyone agrees that we need to cut waste from the system. And it’s understandable that, with reports of individuals taking $100,000 cancer drugs only to prolong survival by a few months, the high cost of drugs is one of the first targets. But simply capping or slashing the price of drugs is not the answer. Individuals and insurance companies should be willing to pay -- and pay a lot -- for drugs when they work. The problem is we’re also paying for drugs when they don’t. To cut costs from the system and create an incentive for drug developers to deliver more innovative new drugs, this is what has to change...We need to separate out those who benefit from a drug and those who don’t. When a drug works, patients and insurance companies should pay the full price. When it doesn’t, they should pay nothing." Samuel Waksal in The New York Times.

4) Don’t resent the rich -- tax them! "We have ample reason to believe that financial markets are quite useful. And yet our wonderful financial infrastructure has not yet brought us the harmonious society we might consider ideal. There remains the ugliness of extreme economic inequality, of some who endure hardship while others are pampered. While some inequality is actually in many ways a good thing, for the motivation and stimulation it provides, arbitrary and extreme inequality poses problems. It is an imperative that people feel society is basically fair to them. We see this aversion most clearly today in the worldwide protests associated with Occupy Wall Street and its variants. Rising inequality is certainly a valid concern, and one that must be addressed. But financial capitalism does not necessarily produce unjust wealth distribution." Robert Shiller in Bloomberg.

Noise pop interlude: My Bloody Valentine plays "To Here Knows When" live at the Fuji Rock Festival.

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Still to come: The GOP objects to the IMF; the pill is good economic policy; a big agreement on bullying; part of Keystone XL looks good to go; and a corgi hopes for a collar-free world.

Economy

Greece is prepared to force through its agreement with bondholders. "Greece is unlikely to get all of its bondholders to agree willingly to a debt-restructuring plan before a Thursday deadline, but it repeated Tuesday that it is ready to force the deal through by other means. Greece stepped up pressure on its creditors Tuesday, saying it won't have money available to pay bondholders who resist. Creditors have until Thursday evening to decide whether they will accept the deal, which replaces existing bonds with a package of new securities with less than half of the face value. But what happens Thursday is part of a carefully choreographed dance designed to ensure the deal is executed. The country has made plain that the bulk of its bondholders--those who have €177 billion ($234 billion) of debt issued under Greek legislation--almost certainly will be compelled to submit to the deal whether or not they agree, thanks to changes in Greek law introduced last month." Charles Forelle in The Wall Street Journal.

The GOP is objecting to IMF funding. "In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the Obama administration helped negotiate a plan to give emerging economic powers increased say at the International Monetary Fund, while also having them contribute more to an enlarged pot of money for the fund. But a brewing election year fight with congressional Republicans has put that plan in doubt and could restrict the IMF’s finances at a time when agency officials say they need a substantial boost to protect the world economy. The dispute centers on Republican opposition to increasing the United States’ financial contributions to the agency, reflecting anger over IMF rescue programs in Europe that some GOP lawmakers argue have become too expensive and have put U.S. taxpayers at risk. The cost to the United States of the European rescue programs is debatable. Some of the money provided to the IMF is in the form of loans on which the United States earns interest." Howard Schneider in The Washington Post.

Stocks had a big fall for the first time this year. "Stocks fell sharply, punctuating a three-session skid with the biggest declines this year, weighed down by soft readings on global economic growth and concern over a looming deadline for Greece's debt swap with private bondholders. Stocks fell at the open and drifted to session lows late in the afternoon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 203.66 points, or 1.6%, to 12759.15, the first decline of more than 200 points for the blue chips since Nov. 23...Tuesday's stock declines came as European markets suffered their worst losses in more than three months, amid increasing worries about a swap of Greek debt by private creditors and weak signals on economic growth. Additionally, a second reading on the euro zone's combined fourth-quarter gross domestic product showed a contraction of 0.3% in the final three months of 2011." Chris Dieterich in The Wall Street Journal.

@ryanavent: I do appreciate the markets' decision to collapse before the March Fed meeting, rather than after. #qe3

Regulators are struggling to finalize the 'Volcker rule.' "The heads of the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission are struggling to ensure new regulations don’t harm the stock and bond markets as they look to clamp down on Wall Street firms. Both agencies doubt they’ll finalize the 'Volcker rule' -- a part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reforms that limits banks from trading stocks and bonds for their own profit -- before the July deadline. The rule was meant to prevent banks from placing risky bets with funds insured by the federal government. But regulators are still confounded over how to enforce the ban without stopping legitimate types of trading done by banks to keep the markets flowing smoothly for investors. SEC Commissioner Daniel Gallagher concluded in a speech last month that regulators are in a 'difficult position because the markets and the public need regulatory guidance and certainty but that certainty can and should not come at the cost of hasty and ill-considered regulatory initiatives that will damage the real economy.'" Josh Boak in Politico.

Young people are taking the hit from falling wages. "Young people entering the job market are taking the brunt of the downward pressure on wages caused by high unemployment, according to a new analysis of pay trends. In data compiled for a coming report, the Economic Policy Institute, a center-left think tank in Washington, found that the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage for male college graduates aged 23 to 29 dropped 11% over the past decade to $21.68 in 2011. For female college graduates of the same age, the average wage is down 7.6% to $18.80. 'New college graduates have been losing ground for 10 years,' said Lawrence Mishel, president of the institute, which derived the figures from regular government wage surveys. The drop in average wages for young adults is in contrast to U.S. government figures showing that average inflation-adjusted hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory workers of all ages and education levels are up 3% from a decade ago." James Hagerty in The Wall Street Journal.

Cupcake interlude: A fully automated cupcake ATM.

Health Care

The pill is good for the economy. "The recent controversy over contraception and health insurance has focused on who should pay for the pill. But there is a wealth of economic evidence about the value of the pill - to taxpayers, as my colleague Motoko Rich writes, as well as to women in general. Indeed, as the economist Betsey Stevenson has noted, a number of studies have shown that by allowing women to delay marriage and childbearing, the pill has also helped them invest in their skills and education, join the work force in greater numbers, move into higher-status and better-paying professions and make more money over all...Those changes have had enormous impacts on the economy, studies show: increasing the number of women in the labor force, raising the number of hours that women work and giving women access to traditionally male and highly lucrative professions in fields like law and medicine." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Medicare rolled out its latest anti-fraud effort. "In the latest effort to enlist seniors in the fight against Medicare fraud, federal officials have overhauled Medicare billing statements to make it easier to find bogus charges without a magnifying glass. The new, more consumer-friendly format, which goes online Saturday on Medicare’s secure Web site, www.mymedicare.gov, includes larger type and explanations of medical services in plain English. The revised paper version, which is mailed to seniors every three months, will be phased in early next year. 'You can make a difference!' the revamped statement says. 'Last year Medicare saved taxpayers $4 billion - the largest sum ever reported in a single year thanks to people who reported suspicious activity to Medicare.' And for those who might need an incentive to scour their bills, the new statements promise a reward of up to $1,000 for a tip that leads to uncovering fraud. Although the bonus isn’t new, there’s no mention of it on current forms, which are sent to about 36 million beneficiaries in traditional Medicare." Susan Jaffe in The Washington Post.

Domestic Policy

A landmark anti-bullying agreement was reached. "After years of accusations that it had failed to stop antigay bullying and a spate of student suicides, Minnesota’s largest school district has agreed to sweeping changes designed to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation in a plan that federal officials call a national model. The sprawling Anoka-Hennepin district, just north of Minneapolis, approved a legal agreement on Monday night with the federal government, which has been investigating the district for civil rights violations, and with six students who had sued the district on charges that they had suffered unchecked harassment. Under the agreement, which must be signed by a federal judge, the Departments of Justice and Education will monitor the district for five years. The Minnesota district and its antibullying procedures became entwined in a nationwide debate over how homosexuality and gender diversity should be discussed in schools." Erik Eckholm in The New York Times.

Corgis are excellent interlude: A corgi yearns for a world free of collars.

Energy

The new leg of Keystone XL is expected to move forward. "TransCanada expects to start the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline by early summer at the latest and have it in service sometime next year, company pipeline chief Alex Pourbaix said Tuesday. 'We have a few federal permits that we need to receive; we would expect to be starting probably in the late spring, early summer,' Pourbaix told reporters at the CERAWeek conference in Houston. After that, it will 'probably be done [in] just over a year,' he said. The company is treating that leg -- which would connect oil stored in Cushing, Okla., to Texas refineries -- as separate from the rest of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross over the Canadian border and still needs a presidential permit...TransCanada is assuming it will receive a presidential permit in the first quarter of 2013 and will have the pipeline completed and in service by the first quarter of 2015." Darren Goode in Politico.

U.S. nuclear safety efforts are lagging. "Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko said Tuesday the agency wasn't on pace to meet its own timeline for improving safety at U.S. nuclear plants in response to the meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant a year ago. The NRC will soon issue its first orders in response to the Fukushima accident, but it is also weighing a host of regulatory changes that could impose extra costs on the operators of the 104 reactors in the U.S. In an interview, Mr. Jaczko said the agency had 'made progress' but risked failing to meet its goal of making all the regulatory changes within five years. 'There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done,' he said. Mr. Jaczko's comments offered more evidence of a gap between him and the four other NRC commissioners on how the agency should proceed in the wake of Fukushima, and came as the nuclear industry moved forward with its own set of safety improvements." Ryan Tracy in The Wall Street Journal.

@noamscheiber: Can someone explain how $2.50/gallon gasoline is a policy proposal? By this logic, so are, you know, power rangers. Both childish desires.

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

 
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