Perhaps the most important number out of Florida's Republican primary last night is not that Mitt Romney beat Newt Gingrich by 14.5%. Rather, it's that Romney beat "the Anti-Romney," namely the combination of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. (Ron Paul's count can be excluded from this analysis since those votes are no more likely to go to either of the non-Romney candidates than they are to go to Romney himself.)
Romney's 46.4 percent exceeds, if just barely, the 45.3 percent garnered by Gingrich and Santorum together, for the first time in this race preventing either Gingrich or Santorum from arguing that one of them could, as the "true conservative," garner the nomination if only the other would exit, stage far-right.
Romney's bogeyman of being unable to get beyond about 25% in any contest (he was even under 28% in South Carolina) has been has been mortally wounded, clearing away perhaps the largest obstacle to a renewed projection of inevitability -- in a world where perception can often turn into reality.
Obviously, there is a realm of unknowns which could trip Romney up. But at this point, the 89 percent betting odds on his receiving the Republican nomination seem hard to quarrel with.
I'm no longer buying the argument that a much longer primary process will make Romney a stronger candidate, especially with the gutter tactics Newt has now shown he will stoop to. As of now, the GOP primary is, despite Jeff Lord's likening Gingrich to Ronald Reagan, a circular firing squad. Indeed, whether Jeff meant to point it out or not, the 1976 process led to a Republican loss, and we don't know with any confidence that the general election outcome would have been different with a different GOP nominee. That too was a circular firing squad, though with smaller caliber ammunition than Gingrich and Romney and their Super-PACs are spraying in the early Republican contests.
As Bill McGurn concluded in an op-ed on Tuesday, "Those of us who believed that a primary fight would toughen Mr. Romney up have little to show for it. Far from sharpening his proposals to reach out to a GOP electorate hungry for a candidate with a bold conservative agenda, Mr. Romney has limited his new toughness to increasingly negative attacks on Mr. Gingrich's character. It's beginning to make what we all assumed was a weakness look much more like arrogance."
McGurn believes, and I concur, that "at bottom the Newt insurgency is fueled by the sense that Mr. Romney's tepid policy agenda reflects no fixed beliefs." This is something Romney should -- but won't -- change, because his obvious election strategy from the beginning has been to be only as conservative as necessary to win the nomination so that he can maintain an aura of "moderate" in order to appeal to independent voters in the general election.
I understand the strategy but don't agree with it, at least in degree. This should be not just an election about competence but also about ideas, not least because Barack Obama has woken the American people up to the damage that bad ideas can cause. But Romney is running as a pure technocrat with very little principled underpinning. This is not only bad for his own campaign in the sense of not inspiring the GOP base to donate their time and money to help him, but the lack of inspiration may also be bad for Republican candidates on the ticket who would benefit from a highly motivated GOP electorate.
I am not saying that Romney's strategy will be a losing one. I continue to believe that he will win in November because so much motivation for voters comes from just wanting to avoid another disastrous four years of Barack Obama. But I don't think it's his (or the party's) best strategy, and I sure wish Mitt Romney would give us something we really want to vote for, rather than just leaving us in the usually less successful environment of "Vote for me because I'm not the other guy."
As the WSJ editorial board put it succinctly this morning, "After crushing Gingrich, can he make his campaign a cause?"
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