It seems that the race for the GOP Presidential nomination has reached another inflection point, so it must be time for another broad overview of the campaign.
We’ll begin with Tuesday’s headliner, Rick Santorum, who swept the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses in impressive fashion. Santorum also won the Missouri caucuses, which doesn’t mean anything at all in terms of delegates, but makes his night all the more impressive. The last time I made a post of this kind, I had this to say about the Santorum campaign’s prospects:
If a Gingrich collapse is to occur in time to benefit Santorum, it must happen in time for Santorum to capitalize in Colorado and Minnesota, both of which Santorum must win. There does seem to be fertile ground in those states for Santorum: both states are known to have strong social conservative streaks and both states have better-than-average unemployment numbers, which may give social issues a chance to shine. If it doesn’t happen for Santorum in those caucuses, however, I seriously doubt his campaign will make it to the February 28th states.
Well, things went exactly according to plan for Santorum. Romney throttled the former Speaker in Florida and Nevada and retook a commanding lead in the national polls. It seems Gingrich did in fact collapse, and did so just in time for Santorum to capitalize.
However, we cannot count Gingrich entirely out at this point. He still has a very strong base in the South and should be expected to win Georgia and Tennessee on Super Tuesday, as well as at least competitive showings in states like Idaho, Ohio, Alaska, Oklahoma, and Virginia. This is problematic for Santorum, whose strategy seems to rely on being the sole anti-Romney. If the anti-Romney coalition (to the extent that this is a real thing) remains fractured between Gingrich and Santorum, with each of them winning states here and there and fighting for second in the states Romney wins, then the only possible results are a Romney victory or (dare I say it) a brokered convention. Though Republican heavies intentionally designed this primary season to produce a lengthy nomination fight, it is nearly inconceivable that the party would allow a brokered convention to occur. To my mind, this means that one of Gingrich or Santorum must step up and unquestionably become the anti-Romney before the party establishment senses real danger and moves to squash both of them.
Thus, I have to consider Santorum’s position rather enviable. He has “won four states” (if Iowa and Missouri can really be counted as wins) – the most of any candidate. Further, he has shown that he can win states without relying on a decisive fundraising advantage; you will recall that Romney’s wins in Florida and Nevada had as much to do with him carpetbombing both states with anti-Gingrich material as anything else; Gingrich’s South Carolina win was fueled by Sheldon Adelson’s Super PAC largess. This is proof positive of one of the most shocking aspects of the 2012 campaign: how remarkably likeable Santorum has come across. To be sure, Santorum is an unrepentant theocrat, a culture-warrior and bigot of the first degree – but that was stuff we all knew prior to the race. Clearly there is something about Santorum now that is connecting with Republicans; his aw-shucks nice-guy-ish-ness, his facility for talking about America’s days-gone-by with real nostalgia (at least in comparison to Romney, whose picture of old America seems more like something shot with Instagram than a real antique).
Still, Santorum’s train may not necessarily have arrived. It should be noted that every state Santorum has won has lower-than-average unemployment, and thanks to his lack of funding, he has yet to show himself competitive in a big media, wholesale campaign. I expect that his campaign will start picking up money after Tuesday’s success. Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, I would expect Santorum to focus his energies on Ohio, Virginia, and Oklahoma with secondary focus on Tennessee, North Dakota, and Georgia. If he can win one of Ohio or Virginia and also poach a Southern state from Gingrich, I think his place as the challenger to Romney will be secure. If he has enough resources to do so, Santorum would also be served well by focusing on the February 28 contest in Michigan. Santorum has shown his greatest strength is the Midwest and though Michigan and its 9.1% unemployment rate present a very different challenge from Minnesota and Iowa, a Santorum win there would represent a major coup, and would likely establish him as the front-runner going into Super Tuesday.
As for Mitt Romney, his path to victory remains clear. He still has all the advantages I described in the last post; the only thing that seems to have changed is the identity of his primary opponent. That is a significant change. however. Unlike Gingrich, who is easily to contrast with Romney, Santorum is in many ways the candidate Romney is attempting to be: clean-cut, devoutly religious, vivacious, et cetera. Santorum is also unsaddled by Gingrich’s almost comically bad favorability ratings and cannot easily be attacked from the right; in a race against Santorum, Romney will have to go after him from the left (a dangerous move that would play directly into Santorum’s narrative and risk further alienating the base for the general election) or move to the right himself (exactly what the Obama campaign would like to see).
Still, Romney’s path remains clear. He alone among the Republican candidates is poised to run a truly national campaign, and with a decisive set of victories on Super Tuesday, he could conceivably wrap up the nomination. This is particularly true if Romney manages to sweep the three biggest states in play that day: Ohio, Virginia, and Georgia. A more mixed Super Tuesday result would set the stage for a long race between Romney and the other survivor; a race I believe Romney is poised to win, but one that I think will likely damage him for the general election. Key to ensuring a mixed Super Tuesday result does not occur will be holding Michigan, where a victory by anyone not named Romney would be seen as a sign of major upheaval and potentially as the death knell of Romney’s candidacy.
Unfortunately for Newt Gingrich, he failed to maintain his momentum coming out of South Carolina and has now been crushed in five consecutive contests. As I wrote in my last post of this nature,
If Romney stages a comeback in Florida, though, I fear it may be over for Gingrich. That Adelson is doling out his money in what seems to be a $5 million per state allowance (rather than just giving Gingrich a big lump sum) suggests that he’s not sold on Gingrich’s viability and that future gifts are dependent on performance. The same must be said for the Gingrich’s newfound fundraising spurt. If Gingrich fails to perform in Florida, those sources of money will dry up and he’ll likely be done. Given the attitude of the GOP establishment toward him, there is next to no possibility of someone giving him a third shot.
Thus, it is hard to imagine him reinserting himself into the campaign, but Gingrich’s obituary has been written prematurely on too many occasions for me to feel comfortable doing it here. The fact of the matter is that Gingrich is in the best position, from a monetary standpoint, of any candidate not named Mitt Romney. For whatever reason, the Adelson family has not yet disabused itself of Gingrich, and that fact is enough to keep him afloat. Gingrich has made explicit that his strategy relies upon winning the South as a demonstration that he is the “real conservative” in opposition to “the Massachusetts Moderate.” This line has become increasingly implausible with Gingrich’s string of defeats, but his candidacy could see a revival should it put up victories and strong showings in Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday. Looking beyond that (as Gingrich must, he has no prospect of wrapping things up that day), Gingrich has openings on March 13 in Alabama and Mississippi, and on March 17 in Missouri (this one will actually count). A big Super Tuesday showing and victories in those states would indicate that conservative support had finally coalesced around Gingrich, and he would be the frontrunner.
I must say, though, that all of this is rather far-fetched. Gingrich has nose-dived in the polls and he’s facing a three-week stretch in which almost nothing related to the campaign will happen. All of the talk in February will be about Romney and Santorum. I think that in all likelihood, Super Tuesday will be the last gasp for Gingrich, and he will be forced to admit defeat shortly thereafter.
As for Ron Paul, well, it seems that Santorum stole his strategy and actually made it work. From an outside perspective, Paul’s two most potentially fertile states had to be Nevada (where he finished a distant second in 2008) and Minnesota (which once elected Jesse Ventura governor, so, you know, anything could happen.) Paul did manage to rack up 27% of the vote in Minnesota, his best showing yet, but this was still a far cry from a victory. As I said last time,
In my view, if Paul does not win in Nevada – an open caucus state that should be better ideologically disposed to Paul than average – whatever very slim chance he now has of winning will be extinguished.
Not only did Paul fail to win Nevada, he failed to even repeat his second-place 2008 performance. I stand by my earlier prognostication. Paul may be a long way from actually dropping out of the race, but his goose is officially cooked.