Mitt Romney, having won six of the ten states voting on Super Tuesday including the grand prize of Ohio, almost certainly woke up Wednesday morning, read the news coverage of his victories and thought to himself: “What else do I have to do?”
And yet, when Romney won Ohio — by a single point or about 10,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast — as well as Virginia, Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont and Idaho, the reaction from the political world amounted to a shoulder-shrug. Romney, the coverage suggested, had yet again barely cleared the bar to keep his nominal frontrunner status. Problems remained — and those problems became the centerpiece of the post-Super Tuesday coverage.
Jon Stewart perfectly captured this moment in a riff on Wednesday night:
So, what gives? Why isn’t Romney basking in a “He did it!” sort of storyline that crowns him up as the de facto Republican nominee? There are a few theories:
1. No big moment: The Republican political world — and the reporters who cover it — have long been waiting for Romney to notch a break-out moment in a primary or caucus vote. The closest thing to it was his victory in Florida on Jan. 31, a come-from-behind win in a swing state.
But, just as the “Romney as inevitable nominee” narrative was starting to take hold, Santorum swept a beauty contest in Missouri and two caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7. The Romney team largely ignored those races, thinking that not much would be made of them — no matter who won. BIG mistake.
Though a relative pittance of delegates were at stake, Santorum’s wins were cast as a major moment in the campaign and he immediately drew scads of national attention and ascended to the number one slot in the “not Romney” sweepstakes.
That turned Michigan into a must-win for Romney. He won — but barely. Ditto Ohio where Romney’s narrow margin — and the fact that the race wasn’t called until after midnight on the east coast — robbed him of a big moment.
2. The quality of the competition: If LeBron James blocks a shot by Fix Original Recipe, no one cares. When LeBron James blocks Dwight Howard, people pay attention. The lesson: Who you are competing against makes a difference.
It’s true in sports and it’s definitely true in politics. And, Romney’s competition — when compared to past candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — is just not all that strong. Santorum lost his last race by 18 points in 2006 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was driven from the Congress by his Republican colleagues way back in 1998.
Scoring wins over Santorum and Gingrich don’t pack the same punch as Romney beating a candidate perceived as being of more political heft. (Kudos to the folks at NBC’s “First Read” for making this point first.)
Need a recent example? Rewind to the 2008 Republican primary campaign when Arizona Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) was deemed to have effectively ended the race after beating Romney in the Florida primary. Why? Because Romney was someone regarded as a serious candidate — he raised a bunch of money, out together a real organization across the country — and therefore beating him mattered in a real way for McCain.
Of course, Romney can’t pick his opponents. It’s not his fault that former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty never really took off, that Texas Gov. Rick Perry crashed and burned or that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour decided not to run. But, the way in which his competitors are regarded does have an impact on how Romney’s victories over them — and losses to them — are measured.
3. The base thing: Romney is winning in spite of the fact that a not-insignificant segment of the Republican base seems to have decided they can’t — and won’t — be for him.
Romney has consistently lost voters who identify themselves as “very conservative”. He lost that group 48 percent to 30 percent to Santorum in Ohio. In Tennessee, Romney came in behind Santorum and Gingrich among the most conservative voters — winning only 18 percent.
Speaking of Tennessee, Romney has yet to score a clear win in the South — the heart of the Republican party in recent decades — since the start of the primary season.
The closest Romney came to a Southern win was in Florida. While technically part of the South, only the Panhandle culturally resembles places the deep South. Virginia., where Romney won, also has an asterisk by it since only he and Texas Rep. Ron Paul qualified for the ballot.
In the three Southern states that have voted so far — South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia — Romney has received 28 percent, 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively. In Oklahoma, a quasi-Southern state, he received 28 percent.
That means that in the states where the base of the Republican base largely resides, seven in ten voters have chosen someone other than Romney. And that bodes poorly for his chances of breaking his Southern drought in Alabama or Mississippi (March 13 primaries) or Louisiana (March 24 caucus).
Romney’s inability to emerge as the clear frontrunner — despite what amounts to a close-to-impregnable delegate lead — is almost certainly due to all three of these factors (and perhaps many more).
Whether or not Romney is getting a raw deal — and it certainly looks as though the goal posts for “victory” keep getting moved on him — doesn’t really matter in the end. As Romney and his team know all too well, “fair” isn’t a word that applies to electoral politics. There’s political reality — and nothing else.