F.A.Q.: What does the good scenario for Mitt Romney look like at this point?

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Mitt Romney campaigns. (Reid Pillifant)
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A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about the ongoing trials of Mitt Romney.

Josh: Let’s say Romney doesn’t melt down today, and manages to win in Michigan and Arizona, but not convincingly enough to make Santorum (or Gingrich!) think about going away or to make his donors feel good about what he’s been doing with all this money the whole time. When does this get really bad, in terms of the condition he’ll be in if and when he finally locks up the nomination?

Steve: It's obviously not good, but I'm a still a little hesitant to say it's become irredeemably awful for them. I'm very curious what the tone of the coverage will be if (and it's a big if) Romney manages to win by a good margin in Michigan. It won't end the process and he's still a good bet to lose a bunch of southern states in March, but maybe the political world's sense of the race changes to: Newt and Santorum have both proven they're totally and completely incapable of handling the spotlight and even if one of them rises again, Romney is going to get this eventually.

Maybe if that's the prevailing sense again, he can ignore debate invitations and maybe some of the money to the others dries up and there's just less attention paid to the G.O.P. nominating process. I guess we won't reach that point this week, especially with the South coming up a week later, but maybe in the near future? I'm still just hesitant to say this is definitely going to the convention or anything like that.

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Josh: How useful have these contests been as a preview of what the super PACs are going to be able to do for Romney in the general election? Because obviously their ability to highlight the weaknesses of the not-Romneys has been an incredibly useful backstop for him in the primary. But what happens when he (and his super PAC) are running against someone with the means to throw those attack ads right back at him?

Steve: Yeah, I don't think we're seeing a preview of the fall at all, in that in a Romney/Obama general there won't be a meaningful financial disparity, the attack ads will come in roughly equal numbers and intensity from each side, and the effect will be a wash—I doubt the ads will win or lose the election. Mainly, each candidate will be spending on them to prevent the other one from gaining an advantage. And I think that's true even if the pro-Romney super PAC ends up with, say, tens of millions more than Obama's. As long as each side reaches a basic threshold, my sense is there's not going to be a direct relationship between how many more dollars one raises and how many more votes that candidate gets. It reaches a saturation point.

Josh: There was an idea heading into these last couple of weeks that Santorum would be a slightly harder target to for Romney's allies than Gingrich had been, if only because the Republican establishment was less frightened of Santorum and therefore more likely to object to Romney just mugging him. Has it turned out that way?

Steve: I guess not quite. I haven't heard many cries of "unfair!" over Mitt's attacks. But at the same time, I've seen very few new Santorum endorsements in the past few weeks. There was Mike DeWine in Ohio and a congressman from —maybe one or two others like that I'm forgetting, but that's basically it. So there hasn't been a loud chorus of influential Republican voices urging Republicans voters to go ahead and finish Romney off. I think that's hurt Santorum, and helps explain why what was a 10-point lead in national polls and a high single-digit lead in Michigan polling last week disappeared.

But at the same time, I don't get the sense he's melting down as dramatically as Gingrich did before Florida; some of the late polling shows him up slightly. Maybe that's a function of Romney just having less material to attack Santorum with than he had with Newt. And I guess that pro-Mitt forces haven't had quite the same ridiculous spending advantage in Michigan that they had in Florida.

Josh: I haven't seen any polling recently on John F. Kennedy, but: Has Santorum's decision to up the ante on the religious rhetoric hurt him at all? Or is this one of those cases where something that complicates the general helps in the primary?

Steve: I guess the latest Michigan numbers suggest that his culture-war stuff is actually helping. He's made real gains among evangelicals and other very conservative types in the past few days. So if you think that's what's going on, then yeah, J.F.K.-bashing is probably a good primary-season tactic. But my own guess is that the Michigan shift over the last week is more a result of Romney stepping in it and generating all sorts of negative/mocking news coverage—the empty stadium, the convenient Paul alliance, the new rich-guy gaffes. I'd say the tone of all of it just reinforces what a lot that people don't like about Romney, and (my guess) probably scared back a chunk of his most hesitant supporters in Michigan—the social conservatives who are now apparently moving back Santorum's way.

My sense is still that Santorum doesn't have to be doing culture-war stuff too much to beat Romney, and that part of the reason he slipped in polling last week was because he was using his time in the spotlight to behave in a way that made R's (even those who generally agree with him) see him as a niche candidate.

Remember, Romney made his initial gains among social conservatives in Michigan while Santorum was talking about "phony theology" and prenatal care. Everyone knows that Santorum is the social conservative guy; his challenge was, and I think still is, to show Republicans that he could be something broader.

That said, it's true that this stuff will probably help him with some evangelicals, particularly in the South, where there's still some question whether anti-Romney Christians will back Santorum or Gingrich.

Josh: So I guess what it boils down to (still) is that Romney needs help. When does that event finally happen, where the party establishment decides it has seen enough of Santorum and Gingrich (and a fantastical brokered scenario) and closes ranks around the guy who is going to be the nominee? Will it happen if he wins these next three?

Steve: I guess what complicates it is Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia next week and Mississippi and Alabama after that. No matter what, I really think Romney will have serious trouble in all of those places. Not only could he lose them all, he might lose some of them big. So I'm figuring that could kick off another round of panic, and prevent everyone from closing ranks.

I suspect there are a lot of G.O.P. leaders who would just as soon get behind him now but who are terrified of seeming like sellouts to the Tea Party base. They don't want to be called RINOs or be accused of trying to force the establishment guy down their throats. Basically, I think this is more of the fallout of the 2010 primary season, which was a wake-up call to veteran Republicans about how easy it is to offend the Obama-era G.O.P. base, even from within the party. So they're just sort of sitting around and waiting for the time when it's safe to endorse Romney. Which doesn't help Romney, obviously. The key, which sort of tells the story of this whole primary, is that almost none of them are endorsing Santorum.