Note: this is the first of two related posts on the state of the 2012 Republican presidential contest. Part 2 will be posted tomorrow morning.
The leaders of the Republican Party and the national news media have decided that Mitt Romney is going to be the GOP’s presidential nominee in 2012.
For example, national news outlets barely waved at Rick Santorum’s big win on Saturday in the Louisiana primary. The New York Times story included this as the second sentence: “The win gave Mr. Santorum a much-needed psychological boost but it will be unlikely to change the dynamics of the race.” And Politico led its coverage with this: “Rick Santorum picked up another win on Saturday in Louisiana, but the victory won’t significantly change the delegate advantage held by Mitt Romney in the GOP nominating contest.”
On Sunday morning, Republican establishment types left no doubt. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN, “I think the primary is over. Romney will be the nominee. The fat lady hasn’t sung yet. But she’s warming up.” And former Mississippi governor and GOP insider Haley Barbour said on NBC, “Unless Romney steps on a land mine, it looks like he will be the nominee.”
Romney is certainly the most likely candidate to be the nominee, but I think it’s too early to make the call.
Many news outlets and the GOP leadership are ready to move on to the general election, but the party’s base of evangelical Protestants is not ready to do so. Romney has yet to win a state where the Republican electorate is more than 50% evangelical.
There are at least three serious land mines still out there for Romney.
First up is health care, which as a topic hits DEFCON 3 this week with the Supreme Court’s hearing of oral arguments about the Obama administration’s law on the issue.
This debate could push health care and Romney’s history with it to the forefront of the minds of Republican voters. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe gave an assist to Santorum on Sunday by calling Romney, when he was Massachusetts governor, “the godfather” of Obamacare’s most famous provision, the individual mandate.
Next up is the Wisconsin primary on April 3. Romney and his allies are currently outspending Santorum on television by more than 50 to 1 in the state, but Santorum has got populist cred that could work to his advantage. Santorum spent Saturday and Sunday in the state, traveling to the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field, drinking beer, and bowling a “turkey” — three strikes in a row. Romney, in the same manner as exhibited by President Obama in an epic photo-op fail in 2008, probably hasn’t bowled three frames in his lifetime.
And, finally, the Santorum camp claims that the delegate math being put forward by the Romney campaign and most leading news outlets is missing the boat in two ways. First, the Santorum campaign says Romney and news outlets do not adequately address the reality that Republicans in caucus states — including Washington State — choose delegates through county and state conventions, not their popular straw ballots that get heavy media coverage. For example, an ABC News report last Monday made this point:
The Santorum campaign believes they will receive the vast majority of the delegates in Iowa and Missouri and they are seeing signs of encouragement in Washington State. In King County, which held legislative district caucuses this weekend to choose delegates to send to the state convention later this spring, Santorum netted four delegates, compared to three a piece for Romney and Gingrich and two for Paul.
(In Washington State’s March 3 caucuses, Romney won King County by roughly 29 percent over Santorum.)
“We are now far exceeding the perceived delegate counts as laid out by the Romney campaign,” [Santorum adviser John] Yob said. “This is just the beginning.”
One more point on the delegate math: the Santorum campaign claims that there are still-to-come penalties by the national party for states that moved their primaries earlier, which would cost Romney delegates in Florida and Arizona.
The Santorum delegate counting is, to put it mildly, an optimistic scenario by the campaign. But it’s not impossible by any means, and while most signs point to Romney as the nominee, there is still road to be traveled.