The Hoopla Surrounding Romney’s Electability

by Stuart Rothenberg February 10, 2012 · 8:27 AM EST

For all the hoopla over former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (Pa.) Tuesday sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri (and the breathless coverage over at CNN on Tuesday night was a great example of hype trumping serious analysis), the dynamics of the Republican presidential race have changed little. While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seems unable to actually win the nomination, it is still awfully difficult to see him losing it.

As others have already noted, Santorum becomes relevant again, which is a bigger problem for former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) than it is for Romney. Two conservatives will still divide the anti-Romney vote, making him look stronger than he really is.

Of course, while Romney remains the favorite to win his party’s nomination, his strategists can’t afford to delude themselves about their candidate’s appeal. The Romney campaign’s observation in a pre-primary memo that no delegates were selected on Tuesday is both accurate and totally irrelevant.

The early primaries and contests aren’t really about delegates as much as they are about credibility and momentum. Iowa’s “winner,” as reported by the media, was the candidate who finished first in a non-binding presidential preference vote — not a single delegate was selected on Jan. 3 — and the New Hampshire primary allocated a mere 12 delegates to the national convention, hardly a windfall for anyone.

Romney is trying to establish himself as the inevitable nominee, and losses, even in caucuses and primaries that involve no delegates, hurt his effort by keeping conservatives energized and forcing his campaign to fight each and every day to make sure neither Gingrich nor Santorum establish momentum in the contest.

That said, some of the analysis after Santorum’s showing on Tuesday is just plain silly.

Jon Ward, a senior political reporter at the Huffington Post, led his post-primary piece with the assertion that Romney’s weak showing — and it was weak — was “another harsh blow undermining his argument that he is the strongest Republican candidate for president.”

I’ve heard this argument before, and I think it’s, well, nuts.

In fact, Romney’s problems in the Missouri and South Carolina primaries, as well as in the Iowa and Minnesota caucuses, are precisely why he is, to use Ward’s words, “the strongest Republican candidate for president.”

Romney has plenty of weaknesses, but they are most pronounced in the race for the GOP nomination, not in the general election.

The folks over at CNN repeatedly noted on Tuesday night that Romney was losing states that he won handily four years ago, apparently confused about what that meant. They didn’t understand that four years ago conservatives were so desperate to stop Sen. John McCain that they embraced Romney as the conservative alternative to the Arizonan. This time, Romney is viewed as a moderate by those very same voters, who are turning either to Gingrich or Santorum as the alternative to Romney. This isn’t brain surgery.

If you understand that (and I’d figure anyone doing analysis on television should), then you should understand that in most states Romney starts with the ’08 McCain vote, not with the ’08 Romney vote. He’s grown that in many states, but often not by a lot. Of course, that doesn’t apply to Nevada or other Mormon-heavy states.

Romney’s “electability” is an argument about the general election, not the nomination. He is still trying to establish that “inevitability” argument about the nomination, and Tuesday’s results certainly undermine his ability to do that.

Romney hasn’t been able to wrap up the Republican nomination quickly because he is doing poorly with a number of demographic groups, particularly rural voters, very conservative voters and evangelical Christians. Those problems weren’t solved in Nevada. It’s just that other variables, such as Romney’s Mormonism, overrode many of the other demographic variables.

His greatest strength so far has been in urban and suburban areas, among older voters, among less religious voters and among self-described moderates and “somewhat conservative” voters. He’s won three states so far: New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

You’d think that anyone looking at this picture would understand that the former Massachusetts governor has done best among those voters groups — and in those states — that will pick the next president.

It’s noteworthy that Gingrich can win South Carolina or that Santorum can win lightly attended caucuses in two swing states because he is seen as the “true conservative,” but those voters won’t pick the next occupant of the White House.

Romney is likely to win rural America, conservative America and religious America against President Barack Obama, so his weakness in those constituencies in the GOP primaries doesn’t affect his electability argument at all.

Gingrich and Santorum aren’t likely to be able to win the very voters who have been picking presidents recently, though they certainly can whip their party’s most conservative voters into a frenzy.

Tuesday was indeed a bad night for Romney. He had hoped to win one or two of those contests, and losing all three is likely to prolong the GOP race and make it more difficult for him to convince unenthusiastic conservatives that, as the inevitable nominee, they ought to line up behind him sooner rather than later.

But Romney still has the best national campaign and the most money, and the multicandidate field — and the field’s makeup — helps him.

Romney is the same candidate he was in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. He did better in a couple of debates, but he is still, well, Romney. Tuesday’s defeats told us little new about the dynamics of the race or the electability argument.