Mitt Romney’s plight, after his third place finishes yesterday’s primaries in Mississippi and Alabama, remind me of a lyric from an old Supreme’s hit: “You don’t really love me, you just keep me hanging on.” Like two halves of a bad relationship, Romney keeps hanging on despite clear signals that the GOP’s conservative base doesn’t want him, and the conservative base that seems unable or unwilling to cut him lose entirely keeps Romney hanging on. The odds are that they’ll drag each other to the altar yet. But this isn’t likely to be a happy marriage.
In one sense, Romney is in good shape. If you run the numbers, it looks like Romney will be the nominee. If you look at the delegate count, Romney maintains a pretty strong lead, with about 438 delegates. Santorum has half as much as Romney, and Gingrich has about half as much as Santorum. Ron Paul has 48. Right now, that does make Romney the candidate most likely to get the 1,144 delegates required to clinch the nomination.
In fact, Romney even came out ahead in the delegate count after Tuesday night. Both Alabama and Mississippi allocate their delegates proportionately. Despite winning 33 percent of the vote to Romney’s 30 percent, Santorum will only get 13 of the states delegates, compared to 14 for Romney. Santorum did better in Alabama, with 19 delegates compared to Romney’s 11 delegates. But Alabama and Mississippi weren’t the only states in play last night. Wins in the Hawaii and American Samoa caucuses gave Romney 17 delegates, compared to 3 for Santorum. With more moderate states like Illinois and Maryland yet to hold primaries, it’s likely Romney will continue to add to his commanding lead in the delegate count.
The double-barreled setback was unexpected in Mississippi, reflecting neither polling numbers nor the expectations that Romney’s campaign was setting in the days leading up to the vote. And in the aftermath, Romney’s aides were left with unemotional appeals for why the primary remained very much his alone.
“Mathematically we are fast approaching the point where it is going to be a virtual impossibility” for opponents to win enough delegates, Romney’s top spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom told CNN.
The problem for the Romney campaign is that it’s not all about the delegates. Mitt Romney may remain the front runner, due to a delegate horde that may make him the “inevitable” nominee. But Tuesday night’s outcome makes clear what previous primaries have only suggested: what it takes to win the GOP’s nomination and what it takes the hearts and minds of the GOP’s conservative base are two different things.
Math may win Romney delegates, but neither math nor money (Romney outspent Santorum in both Mississippi and Alabama, and still lost), can buy him the love of the conservative base. Nowhere is that base more conservative than in Southern states like Mississippi and Alabama. (Being from Georgia, I can speak with some authority on this.) You might say they’re “extremely conservative.” And that’s why Romney had trouble Southern states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. (If you ask me, these states get more conservative the closer you get to Texas.)
The exit polls help tell the story, and I think the heavy evangelical turnout is big, big part of it. Nearly 80 percent of Mississippi primary voters and 75 percent of Alabama primary voters identified as evangelicals or born-again Christians. Historically, this is not a group that’s ever been all that comfortable with Mormonism or Catholicism. Both have been issues in this campaign. Texas governor Rick Perry caused some controversy when he refused to repudiate a supporter and pastor who called Catholicism a “cult.” There’s evidence that Romney’s Mormonism has cost him some support among religious conservatives, and may be an issue in the general election.
However, Santorum’s victory and the rest of the exit poll data suggests that religion isn’t the problem. It certainly wasn’t Santorum’s problem. Despite losing to Santorum, Romney did better among evangelicals this year than he has in previous Southern primaries. His share of the evangelical vote was 29%, up nine points from his 20% share last time around. But GOP primary voters in Mississippi and Alabama were at least as uncomfortable with Romney as he was with them. On the other hand, voters were more comfortable enough with Santorum to give him their votes, because he spoke their language. Santorum’s homilies on the evils of birth control and Satan’s work in the world wouldn’t be out of place in many Southern Baptist churches. Santorum may from a different church, but as far as evangelical voters are concerned, he’s singing from the same hymnal.
For primary voters in Mississippi and Alabama, it really wasn’t about the economy. In Alabama, 90% of GOP primary voters expressed concern about the economy. But, as Dave Johnson noted, there’s about a dime’s worth of difference between Romney and Santorum on economic issues. No matter which of the two you pick, you’ll get pretty much the same thing on economic issues.
It’s not even about beating Barack Obama. Only 40% of GOP primary voters in Mississippi and Alabama cited the ability to defeat President Obama as the main quality they’re looking for in a candidate. Other qualities were more important.
But that is not the only quality GOP voters crave. The three other options – having a strong moral character, being a true conservative and having the proper experience – when taken together attract more than half of the voters in every state so far.
As Michael Tomasky points out, delegate count notwithstanding, that’s why Romney is just barely hanging on to his front-runner status.
But the fact is that these voters said to him, “You are third.” And that still means something. As Gingrich said in his speech, “If you’re the frontrunner, and you keep coming in third, you’re not much of a frontrunner.” Just think back. If Santorum had been declared the Iowa winner the actual night of the Iowa caucuses, when he won, instead of days after … if he’d been lucky enough to get just a couple of thousand more votes in both Michigan and Ohio … Romney would be d-e-a-d now. Romney is just barely hanging on by the thinnest thread that exists. Lucky, very lucky, still to be in the race.
It was about this time in 1992 that Bill Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination—in Illinois, which for these Republicans is coming up very soon. But the difference is this. Clinton was basically seen already as the nominee, and Democrats, even though they were playing around with Jerry Brown, knew that Clinton was going to be their nominee, and the Brown people were just getting their ya-yas out before booking their tickets to the convention. This doesn’t feel like getting ya-yas out. This feels like: “No, we do not want him!” Santorum has a serious claim at this. He’s been very skillful and deserves credit for it. Some people (who, me?!) said a while ago that this was inevitable. Well, this is an interesting and new definition of inevitable.
Mitt Romney may well take to the stage of the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, come August, and accept the party’s nomination. But, as The Guardian’s Gary Younge write, Romney’s inability to unite the party behind him makes him “the nominee by default, not be acclaim.” the road to Tampa will be much longer, now.
Plus, the road to Tampa will be much longer now. Santorum’s wins set the stage for a long contest with Romney, and one could include more humiliations like Tuesday night. Newt Gingrich, who placed second, is under increasing pressure to drop out of the race, from conservatives who want to a clear path for Santorum to challenge Romney. It may be a matter of what give out first — Newt’s ego or Sheldon Adelson’s money.
For his part, Newt has said that he will stay in the race, but has also suggested that —with the nomination clearly beyond his reach — his new motivation is making sure Romney is not the nominee. The best way to accomplish that might actually be for Newt to drop out of the race, and allow conservatives to coalesce behind Santorum from here on out. Throwing his support behind Santorum would help ensure that, and a Gingrich spokesperson has floated the idea of Gingrich and Santorum on the same ticket.
Whatever happens between now and August, it’s going to be a long, hot summer for Romney.