Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Super Tuesday: Dividing the spoils

“A win is a win.” It’s a simple sentence that distills the thinking of longtime election insiders accustomed to living and dying by the absolutist power of numbers. But in the battle for the 2012 Republican nomination, the political equations of the moment trump the convenient, zero-sum-game calculus of victory and defeat.

That came home last night. On Super Tuesday, the major national election before the one in November, Republican voters gave former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a solid string of wins in Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and crown jewel Ohio. But they refused again to convey unto Romney the quasi-coronation he’s been privately expecting and publicly working for since before the primary season began.

Voters validated the campaign of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with wins in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and a loss in Ohio that was, given its closeness (Santorum lost to Romney by one percentage point), really a spiritual victory. They kept the campaign of presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex Newt Gingrich alive, giving the former House Speaker a second win in the Deep South. And by night’s end, they further solidified the firm command of Texas Rep. Ron Paul as the also-ran in chief.

The seeming confusion in voters’ minds reflected a broad divergence of opinion on the candidates still standing, but one thing was inescapable: Romney couldn’t consistently put his opponents away, especially Santorum. Regardless of whether Santorum won or lost Ohio handily or marginally, the narrative going forward from that state’s results on Tuesday distilled a problem for Team Mitt:

In the calculus of perception, Santorum’s three wins were as big as Romney’s six. In Ohio, the evening’s big prize, a campaign running on fumes and righteous conservative indignation — a presidential bid powered by an indelible sense of mission and couch-cushion money — fought the best capitalized, best organized, most lionized of the GOP contenders for the nomination to a statistical draw.

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Maybe that’s why, on CNN, GOP strategist Alex Castellanos characterized the Romney campaign’s hair’s-breadth win in the Buckeye State as a "near-death experience."

If Romney wins the nomination as predicted (or dreaded, depending on your point of view) after long insisting that he’s the only one who can take on President Obama in the general, it will be because Romney’s campaign has less to do with politics as a populist, emotionally resonant experience and much more to do with politics as an exercise in the fulfillment of metrical expectations.

There was even a shadow on some of Romney’s wins last night. He was expected to win in Massachusetts, where he was governor. Regional ties being what they are, he was also expected to prevail in Vermont. And in Virginia, Romney only had to compete with Paul for votes, since neither Gingrich nor Santorum qualified, for various reasons, to get on the ballot.

It’s this inability to go beyond the expected, to achieve a galvanizing breakthrough, to land the decisive haymaker, that makes Romney the most vulnerable frontrunner in the recent history of American presidential politics.

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A big part of what’s held Romney back, ironically enough, is the very professionalism his campaign embodies. The juiceless, mechanized Romney juggernaut advances like a corporation pursuing a hostile takeover. Every step is meticulously planned, every eventuality is anticipated in the business plan. His campaign has been referred to more than once as a “well-oiled machine.” Which begins to get at the problem: Now as before, there’s more oil in this machine than blood.

When specifics are called for in campaign-trail interviews, Romney lapses into bromides and slogans. On the debate stage, when he’s pressed for details instead of outlines, he insists that he’s entitled to respond to questions the way he wants to, rather than answering the questions directly.

He’s running for the presidency the way Miles Davis was once unfairly characterized as playing the trumpet: “walking on eggshells.” Mitt Romney’s more concerned with making a mistake than he is with making a connection. That’s why it’s been so hard for him to close the deal in some of the primaries; that’s also why it’s been so hard for him to close the deal convincingly even in the primaries he’s won. He’d have put his opponents away more decisively, more quickly and more often if that weren’t true.

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Santorum has wounded himself recently, with statements that show the former Pennsylvania senator indulging his inner Cotton Mather, condemning (or seeming to condemn) the pursuit of higher education, saying that birth control is “not OK” and suggestive of licentious behavior, stating that the separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.”

But say what you will, Santorum has been unafraid to advance his ideas with passion and conviction, and to do it with attention to the power of retail politics, politics as a door-to-door experience. That point-of-purchase connection with voters in the primary season has helped Santorum advance without Romney’s deep pockets.

“We’re sort of the ‘MacGyver’ campaign,” Santorum chief strategist John Brabender said on MSNBC tonight. And it’s true. With a fraction of Romney’s SuperPAC ATM cash on hand, Santorum has made himself a contender largely by emphasizing message over money.

“He’s been making, very consistently, a sort of economic, blue-collar argument in places like Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, and it’s resonating,” said Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee, Tuesday on MSNBC.

Santorum is set to benefit from the calendar for the next ten days, The Huffington Post reported: “Kansas will hold caucuses on Saturday, along with Guam, the Northern Marianas and the Virgin Islands. Then, next Tuesday, Mississippi and Alabama hold primaries, where Santorum can score two significant wins. Next, Missouri, where Santorum already won a non-binding straw poll vote on Feb. 7, holds caucuses on March 17 that will actually have an impact on who wins the state's 52 delegates.”

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The third leg in this primary-season stool is Gingrich, the candidate who, by accident or by design, may be positioned to be the spoiler in the campaign. Gingrich handily won his home state of Georgia on Tuesday, a triumph of the same familiarity that helped Romney win Michigan last week.

In his victory speech Tuesday, Gingrich was in his element, ritually assailing the media for its vendetta against his campaign, invoking his bona fides with the customary theatricality he's known for: Newt with index finger aloft; Newt with arms spread wide in a gesture of welcome, like Jesus in Last Supper mode. With primary contests coming up in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas in the coming weeks, Gingrich could build on the regional fidelities he exploited last night, and last month with his win in South Carolina.

No wonder, then, that Newt let the media attack dog out last night.

“I hope the analysts in Washington and New York who spent June and July explaining our campaign was dead will watch this tonight and learn a little bit from this crowd, and from this place,” Gingrich said. “June and July were really hard, and it was precisely because the national media ... had decided that a Gingrich presidency was so frightening that they had to kill it early.”

Newt’s persistence was, he said, a real-world manifestation of the moral of a children’s fable: slow and steady wins the race.

“There are lots of bunny rabbits that run through,” Gingrich said of other contenders who fell by the wayside. “I am the tortoise.” (Goo goo g'joob)

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But sooner or later, Gingrich will fold his tent once the grotesquely unassailable mathematics of his campaign’s fortunes hits home. Paul will continue to languish in the land of statistical crickets, whether he formally quits the race or not.

It’s down to Romney and Santorum, as it really has been for weeks now. And for Romney the presumed numbers guy, another metric looms large. It’s the one that measures his favorable and unfavorable ratings.

A CNN poll from early May 2011 had Romney enjoying a 40 percent favorable rating and a 30 percent unfavorable rating. By this Feb. 13, Romney was upside down in another CNN poll, with 54 percent unfavorable and 34 percent favorable.

A Feb. 22 Politico/George Washington University poll had Romney’s unfavorables surpassing his favorables by 15 points, 37 percent to 52 percent. Days before Super Tuesday, Mitt was still underwater; a March 4 poll by ABC News and The Washington Post had his favorables at 35 percent, while his unfavorable rating among voters was 45 percent. It’s an imbalance that’s dogged Romney for months.

Clearly, Romney has work to do in making himself not just logistically electable but also politically palatable to a broad cross-section of voters. Mangling “America the Beautiful” and jabbering about Davy Crockett won’t get the job done.

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Each candidate put their own Rashomon spin on things tonight, but more than anything else, the split decisions of Super Tuesday indicated something challenging to the Republican drive for the White House. The fact of multiple victors in multiple primaries sends its own powerful signal about the state of the GOP, a signal that, for now, points favorably to the second-term prospects of President Obama.

Simply put, the division of the Super Tuesday vote shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. It’s symbolic of the existentially fractured nature of the GOP. The three or four flavors of contemporary Republicanism that have emerged in recent years — mainline conservative, moderate, evangelical, libertarian — took their places in the only national canvass to precede the general election, 245 days from now.

Those slices of identification have for years indicated a Republican party with no clear, consensus throughline of identity. It would be foolish to have expected Super Tuesday’s voting to reflect anything else.

Image credits: Romney: Stephan Savola/Associated Press. Santorum and Gingrich: CNN. Super Tuesday results graphic: The Huffington Post. Romney favorable/unfavorable chart: TPM Polltracker.

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