Thursday, February 09, 2012

Mitt Romney's Very Bad Day

It is no great revelation that Mitt Romney had a bad night on Tuesday.  He showed poorly in Colorado and Minnesota.  However, I think the results on Tuesday are more than a mere flesh wound for Romney.  Let's be clear, I still believe there's about a 75% chance Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee.  However, before Tuesday I would have put those chances at around 90%.  Let's deal with what Tuesday means for the rest of the nomination fight first.  As far as I can tell, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul all have the same goal: get to the convention without Romney having a majority of delegates.  Gingrich wants to be a close second to Romney in delegates with hopefully a couple of big state wins under his belt (watch for Gingrich to spend a lot of time in Texas).  He then hopes to be seen as the only alternative to Romney and win after Santorum endorses him.  Santorum has a similar strategy. However, I don't think Santorum would be devastated to be third after a first ballot.  I think of Santorum as the Stephane Dion of this race (Romney's Iggy in this weird analogy; Gingrich is Rae).  He may not be the most popular guy at the convention, but he may be the least objectionable and that may be enough.  Ron Paul, with all due respect, has no delusions of being the nominee.  He wants to be the kingmaker and extract some promises out of the nominee.  He needs a brokered convention for that.  Given, that his opponents need to keep Romney at 50%-1, we start to see the problem with losing races in states like Colorado and Minnesota.

Nate Silver has an excellent piece up over at fivethirtyeight in which he wonders out loud about why Romney didn't spend more money in these two states.  I have a theory.  I think Romney's campaign assumed that the fight they had to worry about was the fight against Newt Gingrich and Gingrich was going to be a non-factor in these states.  They underestimated Santorum and it cost them.  It presents a real problem for Romney.  Without directly coordinating, Santorum and Gingrich are playing quite well off each other.  Santorum prefers to fight in caucus states where he can get on the ground and make a difference.  Gingrich wants to fight his battles in big primary battles where he can be his own messenger.  I think one of the reason Gingrich is showing so poorly in retail states is that no one can quite sell Newt Gingrich like Newt Gingrich.  Righteous indignation is not an easy quality to impart in a surrogate.  That leaves Romney fighting two candidates who are a) not going to spend money against each other and b) aren't going to leave a lot of freebies like Nevada (and possibly Maine, we'll see how Paul does there) for him to collect.  I firmly believe that neither Gingrich nor Santorum can win more delegates than Romney by themselves.  However, if they pick their battles and let Ron Paul siphon off a couple hundred himself, they may be able to keep Romney down below 50%.   That's the challenge that faces Romney after Tuesday.  He has to fight everywhere, spend money everywhere, and pray that he can wrap up the nomination when California votes in early June.  Let's say he wins California in June and secures the nomination.  Roll that forward.  What does it mean for the general election?

The talking heads are starting to compare this race to the Obama-Clinton nomination fight in 2008 but the analogy is weak at best.  Yes, Clinton went after Obama hard.  In fact, she went after him harder than John McCain did.  The difference was that Obama built an army for the general election everywhere he went.  Romney received about 23,000 votes last night in Colorado.  Obama got 80,000 in 2008.  The results are fairly typical.  The Democratic contests in 2008 featured record turnout, the Republican contests this year are getting average to below average turnout.  Caucuses in particular are a great way to get contacts for a general election campaign.  If someone is willing to sit through a caucus meeting for you, they are probably willing to go out and knock on some doors or at least write you a cheque.  Romney will not have the resources in Colorado and Minnesota that he could have had he contested the caucuses more aggressively and started identifying his volunteers and donors in these key states now. 

Colorado isn't just any state, it is crucial for Republican hopes in November.  If Obama is able to match his 2008 victories in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, the Republican road to the White House gets a lot narrower.  The Republican party is clearly struggling in that part of the country.  Even in the landslide in 2010, tea party candidates failed to beat vulnerable Democrats in Colorado and Nevada senate races.  Assuming Romney is the nominee, he needs to be able to overturn this recent history if he is to become President.  He failed to lay the groundwork in Colorado on Tuesday.  In Minnesota, Tuesday night exposes a different problem.  Obama is going to have more money than he frankly needs to get re-elected.  The billion dollar number is not unreasonable as a war chest(and that doesn't include a Super PAC that will be flooded with union money).  Having said that, it is crucial for whoever the Republican nominee is to get the President to spend a little bit of his war chest playing defense.  Romney may be able to do that in Michigan (where his father was Governor) or maybe even in New Hampshire but there is no evidence Minnesota will be on that list.  If Romney can't scare Obama in states like Minnesota, he may not be able to keep up with him in swing states like Ohio and Florida.  If this is going to be a long nomination and Romney doesn't at least take advantage and start building reasonable campaign infrastructures in key states, he will be even further behind when he finally secures the nomination.  That's the threat to Romney.  A long nomination fight isn't necessarily a bad thing as Obama proved in 2008, but you need to be able to come out of the race with a general election infrastructure in place.  Romney's infrastructure is looking a little patchy at the moment.

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