By Elvin Lim
Mitt Romney had an ok Tuesday night, no better or worse than the ones he’s had so far. But it is still a story because Romney needed his wins in Arizona and especially Michigan. No news is great news for a campaign’s whose raison d’être has consistently been “take whoever is the anti-Romney candidate down.”
And therein lies the weakness of Romney’s candidacy. He had his donors sweating yet again when news spread that Democrats in Michigan’s open primary were going to turn out to tip the state in Santorum’s favor. The result is that Romney’s three-point win there pales in comparison to his lead over the eventual nominee back in 2008, which was nine percent. In 2008 there was only one anti-Obama candidate by March. Romney faces not one, but three anti-Romneys this late in the game. Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, Newt Gingrich has a home field advantage in the biggest delegate prize so far in Georgia and Ron Paul is positioned to do well in the Alaska and North Dakota caucuses.
Rick Santorum, for his part, still has some momentum left in him because the Michigan results were partly masked by the fact that 184,000 had voted early and Santorum’s surge occurred only recently. The campaign will try to clinch a symbolic win on Sunday in Washington, which is a caucus state (but whose delegates will not be bound by the results). With or without Washington, Santorum has a real shot at victory in Ohio, where he polls well with blue-collar conservatives. All told, there are still not implausible ways out of the Romney nomination.
This is not all the candidate’s fault, however — bland and awkward performer he may be. If the RNC wanted to lengthen the nomination process and expand proportional representation (rather than winner-take-all) in the races, it should have waited until there was an open race on the Democratic side as well. In other words, Republican elders tried to mimic what the Democrats managed to do in 2008 and it is starting to blow up in their face. What compounds this strategic misstep is that in order to punish states who had moved their primaries up the calendar, the RNC, by stripping errant states for front-loading, made it even more possible for a slew of early contests to name a different frontrunner than in previous contests. Thereby they permitted more chaos when they should have known that this would occur alongside an incumbent Democrat with no challenge to his nomination. And of course there was the added wild card of Citizens’ United and the resulting superPACs that has made the survival of little-known candidates more likely than before.
Moving forward, the RNC will have to weigh the costs of controlling the primary calendar, because doing so has weakened the momentum of whoever emerges as the party’s nominee and shortened the time left for him to campaign as a general election candidate. For his part, Romney will be throwing everything but the kitchen sink in to sustain his air of inevitability; but the RNC has effectively determined by rules set in 2010 that the deal definitely won’t be sealed next Tuesday.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.