No matter how you slice it, the news out of Ohio on Super Tuesday is not good.
First, there are no moral victories in Ohio for Rick Santorum. As in Michigan, he lost despite having a solid lead just a week before the vote. Many Ohioans voted for Santorum in order to prevent Mitt Romney from winning and in the hope of finding someone better. With Ohio’s results, that strategy is now dead. Though the Republican primary will go on, Romney will be the nominee.
As for Romney, he and his team can put whatever spin they want on the results, but they can’t hide his continued inability to get a majority (as opposed to a plurality) of the vote in a contested battleground state. Keep in mind, Romney has been running for the presidency for more than five years, and he barely won in Ohio. He won only 20 of the state’s 88 counties — seven of which are Democratic. His ability to grossly outspend his weak primary opponents will not translate into a winning strategy against a well-funded Barack Obama.
Taking a step back from the particular candidates, the low voter turnout in Ohio signals serious trouble for Republicans in November. The projected final Republican vote count will be only 9 percent higher than the 2008 total when the Ohio primary largely didn’t matter and, equally troubling, it will be more than 1 million votes fewer than the number of votes cast in the Democratic primary in 2008. While we must acknowledge that anything can happen between now and November (see September 2008 financial meltdown), the low voter turnout indicates a continued lack of enthusiasm among the conservative base, suggesting that a Republican win in Ohio this November is unlikely.
Because Obama will run up large margins in the blue urban Ohio counties (the ones Romney won), the Republican candidate, as George W. Bush did in 2004 and John McCain did not in 2008, must grab as many votes from the conservative red counties as possible (the ones Romney lost). For all the pundit talk about appealing to the middle, since 1976, Republicans have lost when their presidential candidate was a moderate and won when he was a conservative: Ronald Reagan won in 1980, 1984, and 1988 (his third term), and Bush won in 2000 and 2004; while Gerald Ford lost in 1976, George H. W. Bush lost in 1992, Bob Dole lost in 1996, and McCain lost in 2008. Winning independents does little good when your base abandons you.
Once the final Ohio county-by-county results are available, we’ll know more about how bad Super Tuesday was for the Republican presidential candidate. For a detailed analysis, you can read my book Taxpayers Don’t Stand a Chance: How Battleground Ohio Loses No Matter Who Wins (and What to Do About It), coming out this summer.
— Matt A. Mayer is the CEO of Provisum Strategies, a political advisory firm in Ohio, and a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Well, Mitt Romney won ugly tonight, but he won. Narrowly taking Ohio, sweeping to victory in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Idaho, and solidly winning in Vermont gives Mitt the right to say he won the night. And with that, he probably clinched the nomination, unless Newt Gingrich does the unthinkable and drops out in Rick Santorum’s favor.
Why do Romney’s wins portend that he will be the Republican nominee? Two reasons: his coalition and delegate math.
Romney’s coalition combines moderates and somewhat-conservatives in the East, Midwest, and West with the educated and well-off in the South. With the movement conservatives split between Newt and Rick, Romney can win in the Midwest and West while not getting trounced in the South. This pattern has started to congeal, and primary history teaches that once coalitions congeal they are very hard to break apart. Romney’s coalition may comprise only 35 to 40 percent of the GOP outside the South, but that’s enough to win in a three- or four-man race.
Delegate math makes a Romney nomination even more likely. The states Romney is likely to lose in the South largely apportion their delegates proportionately. He can lose 60–40 in Texas and still get 40 of the delegates. States he is likely to do well in, such as New Jersey and Utah, are winner-take-all. And the biggie, California, is winner-take-all by congressional district. Romney is positioned to win small victories in more California congressional districts than is Rick Santorum, whose religiously tilted coalition is small in the suburbs of that state. That means Romney leaves Super Tuesday with a couple-hundred-delegate lead and is well positioned to end the race in June by gaining another couple hundred delegates. It will be nearly impossible for Santorum to catch him by winning in the other states left to vote.
That equation changes if Newt drops out. Alabama and Mississippi vote next Tuesday. If someone wins those states with over 50 percent of the total vote, they are transformed from proportional primaries to winner-take-all. Given how well Santorum did in rural Tennessee and Oklahoma today — and even in rural Georgia, considering it’s Newt’s home state — a one-on-one with Mitt next week could produce the delegate burst Santorum desperately needs. But that is merely a pipe dream of the base: Newt spent Super Tuesday in Huntsville, Ala., home to a NASA center, where he again called for a lunar base.
That doesn’t mean the race is over. Santorum will stay in for weeks, perhaps months. He’ll probably win Saturday’s Kansas caucuses decisively, then win solid victories in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday. He’ll play the role George H. W. Bush played in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, doggedly staying in the race and even winning some big states. Santorum could sweep the remaining states in the South, win the beauty contest in his native Pennsylvania, and do well in Wisconsin and Indiana. But like Bush, he’ll eventually see the light and drop out, even if it takes until June 6 when New Jersey and California vote. Whether, like Bush, he is really auditioning for the role of vice president remains to be seen.
— Henry Olsen is a vice president of the American Enterprise Institute and the director of its National Research Initiative.