With Wisconsin having presented Rick Santorum with a generous helping of its dairy air, Santorum now begins the “Sixth Sense” portion of the campaign, in which he’s the only one that doesn’t know his campaign has assumed room temperature.
It was only a month ago that Santorum enjoyed a substantial lead in the polls in Wisconsin. In February, one reputable poll had his lead at 34 percent to 18 percent over Mitt Romney, who won the state by around five percentage points last night. (They are still hand-counting ballots in notorious Waukesha County, where the state’s largest number of Republicans live.)
Romney benefited in equal parts from both the calendar and a timely endorsement from Congressman Paul Ryan. I’m usually very skeptical of the value of endorsements; but in this case, Ryan’s endorsement almost gave the state’s conservatives permission to vote for Romney. According to exit polls, among voters who considered themselves “very conservative,” Romney won 46 percent to 40 percent.
Ryan’s influence was especially evident in suburban Waukesha County, where Romney won by a whopping 63.4 percent to 29.5 percent margin over Santorum. Waukesha is the seat of conservatism in the state, and makes up a small portion of Ryan’s congressional district. It is the county that normally would have been the most skeptical of Romney’s conservative credentials; yet he won it going away.
One of the rare times when endorsements can make a difference is when they are unexpected; and for months, it never seemed Romney was Ryan’s type of conservative. While traveling with Ryan last October, I asked about the time he called Romney’s Massachusetts health plan “not that dissimilar to Obamacare,” and how he could walk that rhetoric back if Romney ended up as the nominee. He shrugged his shoulders, saying that he would simply indicate his disagreement with that specific policy, then accentuate the areas where he and Romney agreed. With Romney’s embrace of Ryan’s recently passed House budget, those areas of agreement clearly have grown.
It also certainly didn’t hurt that Ryan’s endorsement came the same week Ryan became President Obama’s most public foil. In a speech yesterday, Obama delivered a bitter, partisan speech aimed at discrediting Ryan and his budget; but recent anti-Ryan speeches have likely helped Romney. If Obama feels the need to start attacking Ryan and Romney so publicly so soon, conservatives might feel there’s something to this partnership.
Despite his big victory in Wisconsin, it wasn’t as clean a victory as Romney could have hoped. In heavily Catholic Brown County, Santorum beat Romney 44 percent to 37 percent. (In this part of the state, which houses Green Bay, people revere the Pope and the Packers, and not necessarily in that order.) If Romney wants to be competitive in Wisconsin in November, this is an area in which he must do well. Perhaps Republicans will coalesce around him once he is the candidate, but last night’s showing demonstrates a lack of excite-Mitt in the Northeast.
Further, last night was a bloodbath for the few conservatives that held office in heavily liberal Dane County, home of the city of Madison. With the gubernatorial recall election pending, liberals can’t wait to get to the polls to express their displeasure — even if it involves tainting the results of the GOP presidential primary. Santorum very nearly won one of the most liberal counties in the U.S., providing very real evidence that in Dane County, the Daily Kos’s “Operation Hilarity” (in which liberals vote for Santorum to extend the GOP primary) may have taken hold. (A typical tweet from Dane County: “Just voted for Dick Santorum. I feel dirty.” Clearly, flimflammery was afoot.)
But given Ryan’s popularity in the state, Romney could mitigate some of Wisconsin’s liberal angst by putting Ryan on the ticket. That has been the talk in Wisconsin for months, and it only grew stronger when the two cemented their bromance by handing out sandwiches together. Clearly, Ryan would be a strong carapace to protect Romney from the attacks headed his way related to Ryan’s budget.
But even the day after the Wisconsin primary, it already feels like it happened a month ago. The candidates’ wheels are up, and off to fight elsewhere. From here on out, Romney can spend the remainder of the primary campaigning in a robe and slippers and he’ll still win — the word “Santorum” should never again fall from his lips.
— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.