Super Tuesday came and went, and I’m not sure people in the ten states involved felt it was all that “super”.
Despite some Republican party activists asserting this is the most important Presidential Election since George Washington was elected (no, really), voter turnout in several cases was lower than in the 2008 Republican Primary. Many of those who did vote were not enthusiastic about any of the candidates running (according to the Washington Post, “Barely more than four out of 10 voters in Ohio said they were strongly behind their candidate, according to exit polls”). And people aren’t enjoying the spectacle of the campaign itself either—the New York Times quotes a couple from Ohio complaining about the “barrage of ads” and “the phone calls, ugh … We get 15 a day.” (They must be new to the Buckeye State. It will get worse in November.)
At this point it seems clear that, barring some major mistake, damaging revelation, or outside event, Mitt Romney will grind his way to the Republican nomination. It is also clear that it is likely to take months. Rick Santorum in particular has no reason to concede at this point. It is not clear that he has any real chance of winning the nomination. (Josh Putnam at Frontloading HQ has been crunching the numbers and makes a strong case it is highly improbably that Santorum, let alone Gingrich or Paul, can actually win the primary without dramatically improving their performance. The Washington Post has a similar analysis here.) But Santorum’s campaign is kept afloat by the lack of whole-hearted support for Romney in the Republican primary electorate, by media coverage, by outside money, and by the appearance of momentum off the back of a favourable electoral geography/timetable. He will probably do well in Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, the next states to vote—all southern, all primed for his folksy style and conservative message—but from late March and onwards, the demography swings in Romney favour as Illinois votes. In April, a raft of North-Eastern states have their primaries, states that Romney will probably win quite clearly on his way to locking up the nomination.
In 2008, the Republican Primary was over after Super Tuesday, the preponderance of winner-takes-all systems for allocating delegates meant that John McCain was comfortably ahead in the delegate count at an early point in time. Out of ten states to vote before February 6, 2008, McCain had won only three (New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida) Of the 21 that voted on Super Tuesday that year, he won 9, for a total of 12 out of 31. Mitt Romney, by comparison, had won a total 11 by then—but conceded the next day, accepting that there was no clear path for him to the nomination. In 2012, Romney has won 14 states out of 22 (including Ohio), and Santorum 6, but changes to how delegates are awarded means that Santorum retains a sheen of viability that will only be increased if he racks up more victories in the next couple of states. (It is an interesting question of how one covers this as a journalist—there is a danger to pronouncing people winners before they have actually won. Compare the New York Times coverage, which is very cautious about crowning Romney as the likely nominee, with the Washington Post, which is much less circumspect.)
Why this change to the rules, changes that keep Santorum alive and kicking where he would have been dead and buried under the old rules? After 2008, Republican Party leaders came to the conclusion that the drawn-out Obama-Clinton primary contest was actually an advantage for the Democratic Party, giving their candidates more exposure, battle-testing them, forcing them to built their campaigns across the country. Hence, as Karen Tumulty writes in the Washington Post, in the new system—
“The GOP nomination contest was designed to play out more slowly than in the past. Through the end of this month, states are required to allocate their delegates in proportion to the votes each candidate receives. That means just about everyone comes away from just about every contest with something to show for it — and a rationale for continuing to the next one.”
It is not clear this is working out very well for the Republican Party. As Dan Balz notes in the Washington Post, “Romney is in worse shape at this point in the campaign than virtually all recent previous nominees.” The exposure, the incessant negative campaigning, the party-internal wrangling and the rest of it is not working to the GOP’s advantage. Balz continues—
“Demographically, [Romney’s] 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.
Geographically, the numbers from several key states have been discouraging for the former Massachusetts governor. Pre-primary polls in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan showed him running behind Obama by low double digits. Ohio is a must-win for the Republican nominee in the fall, and Virginia is a state the GOP is determined to take back from the president. Republicans once thought Michigan would be a possible battleground, but at this point it isn’t.“
Every Republican Party leader, operative, and activist who looks at the trajectory of the primary will have to consider whether the drawn-out contest is undermining the party’s prospects in the fall. Many are clearly pushing hard for the GOP to rally around Romney.
But as long as Santorum and the rest insists on plugging on, their wealthy backers are willing to bankroll them, and between a third and half the Republican primary electorate keeps on voting for them, they can do it. Hence, while Super Tuesday gave Romney a string of victories (and important ones at that), it was more like another day at the office than a particularly “super” day for him too. Both he and many voters would probably wish for this to be over sooner rather than later. But Romney will just have to grind his teeth and grind his rivals down, week after week, state after state, driving away independent and alienating party activists simply by not being as conservative as they are, while President Obama and his people built his re-election campaign and prepares for the final showdown in the fall.
My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.
(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)