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Media chatter misses the key: a tough Obama-Romney race

Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, stop to talk with reporters after voting in the Massachusetts primary on March 6, 2012. Credit: Hyunah Jang of Boston University News Service/Flickr (CC)

Those who sat through the marathon cable-news coverage of Republicans’ Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses now qualify for a break from the campaigns — and from the TV talking heads who presumed to tell us what the results meant.

During the course of the evening March 6, the pundits repeated interminably several themes that they, no doubt, will hit even harder as the campaigns head to Dixie next week. So, let’s dig into the main ideas they are serving up.

  • GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney must do more to nail down Tea Party, evangelical, and other conservative support in his party.

Well, no. Romney has run a textbook nominating campaign. He has a huge delegate lead, has more money and is better organized than his competitors, and has never lost sight of the fact that the ultimate prize is the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination at this summer’s GOP national convention in Tampa, Florida.

Romney knows that President Barack Obama, not his present GOP rivals, will be his ultimate opponent. He has continued to stress the gut economic issues that will be most important in the fall general election. His platform has moved only slightly in a more conservative direction as his nominating campaign has proceeded — reflecting the fact that the 2012 Republican Party is more economically and socially conservative than the 2008 party was when he was runner-up to Sen. John McCain for the GOP presidential nomination.

Romney carried six states Tuesday night and increased his delegate total to a point where he is almost uncatchable in the nominating race, barring some unforeseen scandal or blunder. Former Sen. Rick Santorum continued to outpoll him among evangelical and social-issue voters and, significantly, carried Tennessee and Oklahoma, where those voters are particularly strong (and where anti-Mormon bias is palpable). Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich carried his home state of Georgia but ran weakly everywhere else.  He would be out of the race already if not for a continuing money flow from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Analysts understandably identified swing-state Ohio as the state to watch Tuesday night. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said it would be “disastrous” if Romney were to finish second there to Santorum. As it turned out, Romney won by a single percentage point. Yet, because Santorum failed to file delegate slates in several congressional districts, Romney would have harvested about the same number of delegates there had he lost by a single point.

Santorum and Gingrich can be expected to run more strongly than Romney in contests next Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi. Pundits will state again that he must find a way to run more strongly in conservative venues. But they will be wrong.

The Romney campaign has its eye on the electoral map and is not about to adjust its platform, or misdirect resources, to places which Romney is unlikely to carry in any case — because of the aforementioned evangelical, Tea Party, and anti-Mormon influences. That includes even delegate-rich Texas. No, Romney’s path to the nomination runs through New York, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, and other states where Santorum and/or Gingrich will have little chance of defeating him. He also will compete strongly in Pennsylvania in the hope of delivering the coup de grâce to Santorum in his home state.

  • More conservative GOP voters will be disaffected and sit it out in the fall general-election campaign.

Again, no. Much was made of the fact that Santorum carried rural and small-town areas in Ohio Tuesday night while Romney carried urban centers and their suburbs. Do pundits really believe that Ohio’s rural and small-town evangelicals and Tea Partiers are likely to vote for Obama, or sit things out, in November? The more significant fact was that Romney ran so strongly in constituencies that Obama carried in Ohio in 2008. I concluded from the Ohio result that an Obama-Romney race will be fiercely competitive there this fall.

There is a general rule in presidential-nominating races: More conservative voters, in the GOP, and more liberal voters, in the Democratic Party, will never be satisfied with the positions taken by frontrunning candidates prior to their nomination. But the candidates themselves know that the fall election will be won or lost among moderate and independent voters (now more numerous than either Republicans or Democrats) and will position themselves as centrists a split second after their nominations.

Opinion surveys continue to show highly polarized Democratic and Republican parties. It is hard to imagine anything Romney could do or say, between now and his nomination, which would cause hard-core Republicans to defect in the fall. Conservative Republicans are not his problem. He has some other problems (see below).

  • The Republican candidates are destroying themselves and assuring an Obama victory in November.

No again. Romney, Santorum and Gingrich have traded public blows. But only four years ago, remember, supporters of Hillary Clinton were saying there was no way they could ever support Barack Obama. Those with a memory of party conventions will attest to their toxic aspects. In 1960, for example, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson was flooding Democrats’ Los Angeles convention with rumors that Sen. John Kennedy was covering up his Addison’s disease and was downing daily tonnages of prescription drugs (the rumors were in fact true). The Kennedy forces were furious. Yet LBJ ended up as Kennedy’s vice-presidential running mate and won a close election for him by carrying Texas. The history of presidential nominating races is that vice-presidential nominees have, in fact, often been the presidential candidates’ principal competitors for the nomination — an obvious device for creating party unity after divisive nominating races.

When there is an incumbent president, a presidential election is always a referendum on the incumbency. The two big questions: Are we doing well economically? Are we safe internationally? Thus far the Obama campaign has been quite skillful in diverting attention from these two central issues to matters such as contraception, Rush Limbaugh, and Santorum’s controversial social-issue views. But that won’t last.

I’ve seen or heard nothing thus far in the GOP nominating race which would be likely to seriously damage Romney in a fall campaign against Obama. Santorum’s charge that Romneycare was the model for Obamacare? Gingrich’s allegation that Romney is “not a true conservative”? Santorum and Gingrich have taken even harder shots at Obama which are likely to have staying power in the fall campaign—for instance, that Obama is hostile to organized religion and that his energy policy is to blame for shortages and high gas prices. These charges are now floating in the air and Romney need not be their originator.

Back to fundamentals: Fact is, when the two parties form their tickets this summer, the whole game will return to “go.” There will be speculation prior to the conventions regarding the vice-presidential nominees. Will Obama drop Vice President Joe Biden in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or a wholly new face? (President Franklin Roosevelt, remember, won four presidential elections with three different running mates). Who will be Romney’s running mate? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie? Someone from the West Coast or Texas? A Latino?

When there is an incumbent president, a presidential election is always a referendum on the incumbency. The two big questions: Are we doing well economically? Are we safe internationally?

Thus far the Obama campaign has been quite skillful in diverting attention from these two central issues to matters such as contraception, Rush Limbaugh, and Santorum’s controversial social-issue views. But that won’t last. Both presidential candidates, in the end, will confront each other on the Big Two issues.

I have little personal patience, truth be told, with Santorum’s and Gingrich’s candidacies. Rep. Ron Paul is an interesting bit player who has no chance at the nomination but who will have some influence on the GOP platform at the party’s national convention.

I do not find Romney a galvanizing or exciting figure. But I try to see him as most voters will see him this fall. He comes across as honest, competent, an attractive family man, and well grounded in economic and financial policy. He is what he seems — the dutiful and admiring son of a successful self-made and progressive governor, who was a business executive and onetime presidential candidate in his own right. He will be carrying baggage from his party this fall, but he is shrewdly shying away from identification with its true believers.

I see him as a straight-arrow, 1950s guy, well-meaning, responsible, and ambitious. Not appealing at all to Democrats’ core liberal constituencies but possibly so to so-called Reagan Democrats, who are vital to carrying industrial swing states.

Obama has had some policy setbacks during his three years in office. But he has proven resilient, a skillful political tactician, and possessing the sometimes ruthless jugular instincts of a do-what-it-takes Chicago pol.

International financier George Soros was quoted (unfavorably) last month by Gingrich as stating that, in the end, an Obama presidency and Romney presidency would not be all that different. There is some truth in that. The Republic will not crumble with either in office.

I am expecting an exciting, close general election fought hard to the finish. There are financial, economic, and international variables which could impact the course of the election at any time up to election day.

In the meantime, we can take a break for awhile from the GOP nominating race. Unless he really messes up in an unexpected way, Romney’s going to win it.

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