One of the many pernicious things the 24-hour cable news cycle has done to America is to encourage almost endless analytical hyperventilation and over-the-top hyperbole. Given all that time to fill, every event and every political contest is made to look as if it had the consequence of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. For, if the event in question is ever considered more mundane, it begs the question as to why the viewer is wasting his time watching CNN or Fox at 3am.
So, before the tsunami of hysteria well and truly hits, let us look at the facts of Super Tuesday – by far the largest campaign day of the year for the Republican presidential primary. Indeed, ten states from all over the union held their nominating contests on March 6.
Mitt Romney won critical Ohio (the main prize of the night) in a squeaker over Rick Santorum, 38%-37%. He also won five other contests, in Idaho (which has a large Mormon constituency), Virginia (in which neither Newt Gingrich nor Santorum had their names on the ballot due to campaign incompetence), Massachusetts (Romney’s other home state, where he was a relatively popular governor), and small Vermont and Alaska. Santorum carried North Dakota, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, running a strong second elsewhere. Gingrich handily carried his home state of Georgia, but was an afterthought pretty much everywhere else. Ron Paul won nowhere. What does this rather confused result mean, barring all the hoopla? In one sense, it means very little, as the underlying dynamics of the race did not budge. On the other hand, the race’s continuities are now clearly visible, as the flux that has epitomized the race up to now has been replaced by certain ironclad storylines. Here they are:
1) Romney remains the frontrunner and the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. There is little doubt that Romney is in the driver’s seat. The former Massachusetts governor now has about one-third of the 1144 delegates he needs to win the GOP nomination. He has won 13 of the 23 contests so far. On Super Tuesday, Romney won more delegates across the ten states than his three rivals combined. He managed to win crucial Ohio. To give you an idea of its importance, since the founding of the Republican Party in 1856, the Republican nominee for president has never once won the White House without carrying the Buckeye state. Romney remains the Republican candidate who has by far the most money, organization, and establishment support behind him. And yet….
2) Rick Santorum continued to emerge as Romney’s principal challenger. By winning the internal states of Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota (and coming within a whisker in Ohio), Santorum refused to go gentle into that good night. Further, his wins were all in states that the Republicans can actually carry in the fall (unlike Mitt’s victory in true blue Massachusetts), which – in decided contrast to Romney – reaffirms that Santorum can actually fire up the Republican conservative, blue collar base to go out and vote where it counts. His greatest problem remains simple math: two “anti-Romneys” amount to one too many. For a thought experiment, add the core non-libertarian anti-Romney vote of Santorum and Gingrich together in all nine states (Virginia excluded) and the picture becomes clear: a single anti-Romney wins almost every time; two anti-Romneys lose more than they win. Which is why perhaps the critical fact of the night is….
3) After Super Tuesday, none of the final four Republican hopefuls show signs of leaving the race. Ron Paul’s low-budget guerilla campaign will continue to scoop up the 15% or so that comprise the libertarian wing of the GOP, winning some delegates in further caucus states, with the goal of reaching the Tampa nominating convention with enough heft to move the platform his way, and maybe even getting a speaking role there. He has absolutely no incentive to get out.
Gingrich has ceased being a national candidate. But with strong wins in the confederate south (which, after all, is the GOP’s primary electoral bastion), in South Carolina and in Georgia (and with the states of Mississippi and Alabama due to vote in a week), he may yet emerge as an important regional candidate, still hoping to catch fire more broadly. With wins in all four southern states, his Super-PAC the beneficiary of seemingly limitless funds from Los Vegas tycoon Sheldon Adelson, and a gargantuan ego, do not expect Newt to step aside any time soon.
Santorum must hope against hope that Newt is somehow pressured to leave the race (Gingrich losses in either Alabama or Mississippi could provide just such an impetus). He must think back fondly on the halcyon days of early February when he handily beat Romney in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota – largely in one-on-one contests. This remains Santorum’s only faint hope of overturning the GOP campaign’s increasingly set-in-stone narrative: Romney was a weak frontrunner who barely beat a very weak Republican field. So….
4) Believe Barbara Bush and not Bill Kristol: this seemingly endless campaign continues to kill Republican chances for the White House. The former first lady became a beloved figure in America by actually saying what she thought, and by using facts to support her assertions. When asked by Fox News about the present contest, she tartly replied that it is “the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.” This fact-based reply is in direct contradiction to the desperate snake oil some Republican grandees are peddling. For example, continuing to not let facts get in the way of his theories (as neocons so often do), Republican pundit Bill Kristol has, in cheerleading fashion, tried to make out as if the Republican contest is a re-run of the epic Obama-Hillary battle of 2008, where the lengthy primary actually intensified the country’s interest in both candidates.
The real world seems squarely on Mrs. Bush’s side. According to a March 2012 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a full 40% of those surveyed say the primaries have given them a less favorable impression of the Republican candidates, with only 12% feeling more favorable to the GOP contestants. With Romney’s negatives way up – particularly amongst the independent voters who always determine American national elections – the same poll shows President Obama ahead of Romney by a comfortable six points. For the White House – as plainspoken Barbara Bush suggested – the ugly GOP contest is the gift that keeps on giving.
So, forget the talk about changes coming out of Super Tuesday. Rather, what it did was confirm the narrative that Romney is just a mite too strong to be beaten by his weak challengers; they, in turn, are just potent enough to avoid obliteration. The real winner in all this is a man whose name wasn’t on a single ballot Tuesday: Barack Obama. Unless something changes and soon, this will be the headline story of the 2012 presidential race.