In the aftermath of Rick Santorum’s clean sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, Mitt Romney is still, in fact, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. But the lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy among conservatives foreshadows a potentially ugly road ahead to Tampa and general election problems if he is nominee.
There are all kinds of reasons Romney advisers can offer for his anemic showing Tuesday. Some of them were cited in a memo issued as the polls were opening. Romney was coming off two consecutive victories that should have given him some momentum. The defensively worded memo was designed instead to dampen expectations.
The arguments advanced by Romney advisers are not incorrect. He did not spend real money in these states. He did not campaign in them very much. There were no delegates awarded in any of the three. Missouri was simply a beauty contest. Arizona and Michigan, whose primaries are at the end of the month, look favorable for Romney. Super Tuesday offers more opportunities to win. Santorum and Newt Gingrich have limited resources.
The campaign memo also said this: “It is difficult to see what Governor Romney’s opponents can do to change the dynamics of the race in February.” In writing that, Romney’s top advisers could not have been anticipating that their candidate would suffer a triple defeat Tuesday.
The issue is not whether Romney has been significantly derailed from his path to the nomination, but rather what kind of nominee he might be and what kind of party would be behind him.
The contests on Tuesday were not all inhospitable states for the former Massachusetts governor. Four years ago, he won Minnesota and Colorado. He captured about 60 percent of the vote in Colorado, about 40 percent in Minnesota. He ran third in Missouri in 2008. He got 29 percent of the vote, just four points behind winner John McCain.
On Tuesday, he won just 35 percent of the vote in Colorado and a paltry 17 percent in Minnesota (in a third-place finish). In Missouri, he managed only 25 percent of the vote to Santorum’s 55 percent, though the 2008 primary awarded delegates and this year’s did not. In raw votes, he was well below his 2008 levels.
All front-runners lose states along the way. Four years ago, McCain certainly did, and so did President Obama. Obama became the Democratic nominee without winning New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania or California. He lost a Florida beauty contest and he didn’t compete in Michigan. Yet today he is president of the United States.
So Romney and his advisers can look around and say that they are still on what they call the methodical path toward the nomination, that they are winning delegates whenever delegates are being awarded. That’s all correct.
But that methodical path they describe also could give him the nomination while leaving his party fractured, the base uninspired and his opponents bitter and slow to reconcile. Once again Tuesday, turnout was below the levels of 2008. Republicans are fervent in their desire to defeat the president in November but can’t work up much enthusiasm for their own candidates.