Mitt Romney eked out a win in Ohio over Rick Santorum which, when coupled with victories for the former Massachusetts governor in Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia and Idaho, ensured that he would remain the frontrunner for the Republican nomination heading out of Super Tuesday.
And yet, although Romney cemented his delegate lead with those victories — NBC has projected he will win roughly half of the 437 delegates up for grabs tonight — there were signs everywhere you looked that Romney still hadn’t closed the deal among large swaths of the Republican electorate.
* While polling in the runup to the Ohio vote showed the race a dead heat, the momentum was all on the side of Romney. (Check out this chart if you don’t believe us.) That the race in the Buckeye State was so close was a surprise.
* In Tennessee, the Romney-aligned Restore Our Future super PAC spent $1 million on television ads. And there was some chatter that Romney might pull the upset and leapfrog Santorum for first place. But, the final results — Santorum won by nine points — wasn’t close at all.
* In Virginia, only Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul were on the ballot. And yet, Paul got 41 percent of the vote — by far his strongest showing in either the 2008 or 2012 race to date. While Romney won 43 out of a possible 46 delegates in the Commonwealth, the vote for Paul suggested that there is a considerable anti-Romney faction in a state likely to be very competitive in the fall general election.
Where does that leave us? In a very similar place to where we were before Super Tuesday actually.
On paper, Romney is still the odds-on favorite to be the Republican nominee. He has a considerable delegate lead that may be close to insurmountable over the long haul. He is still the best funded and best organized candidate in the field. He has won — in New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan and Ohio — when he absolutely needed to.
And yet, it’s clear that major doubts remain. He has yet to convince conservatives that he is one of them and, at this point, it’s hard to imagine he ever will. He lacks any positive message to persuade large numbers of undecided Republican voters. He suffers from a passion gap as compared to Santorum and even, in his own odd way, Gingrich.
The calendar for the remainder of the month also doesn’t work in Romney’s favor. Kansas, a socially conservative state, holds caucuses on Saturday. Then Alabama and Mississippi — two southern states unlikely to be friendly to Romney — as well as Hawaii vote on March 13. Illinois, which should be a good state for Romney, votes on March 20. Louisiana, another tough state for Romney, cast ballots on March 24.
That calendar coupled with tonight’s results will keep Santorum and Gingrich in the race for the foreseeable future.
Viewed as broadly as possible, Romney is still likely to be the Republican nominee barring some sort of major change in the governing dynamic of the race. But, he will be forced to endure a series of electoral indignities over the coming weeks and maybe even months before he will wrap things up.
That’s good news for President Obama because it means he will have ample time to try to sew up — or at least strengthen himself among — the ideological middle, which is where the 2012 election will be decided.
Romney allies had hopes Super Tuesday would symbolically wrap up the nomination for their candidate and, in so doing, answer the questions — Is he conservative enough? Can he win working-class voters? — that have swirled around him since he entered the 2012 race.
Instead, the results mean that those questions will grow louder or, at the very least, stick around for a few more weeks. The Romney forces will, rightly, point to the delegate count as the ultimate answer to any and all questions.
But make no mistake: This was not how the Romney team imagined their march to the Republican nomination playing out.