Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Zanesville, Ohio, Monday, March 5, 2012.
Any of the following sound familiar? This “could be a game-changer in the Republican presidential race,” Reuters reports. “It may be Romney's last stand,” CBS News declares. Matthew Dowd chimes in: “This is a huge, crucial moment. I think it’s actually the most important moment for Romney in this entire campaign up until now.” If any of this rings a bell, it’s because that’s what pundits were saying about Michigan no more than a week ago. Today, it’s Ohio that has been christened the state that will make or break the Romney campaign.
Despite taking place on a date with a snazzier name, there is little to distinguish the Ohio primary from the heavily covered contests in Michigan and Florida. While it's understandable that media attention has focused on contested states instead of safe bets like Nevada or Arizona, the vote breakdowns in all these contests can be explained by the same spiel: It's about demographics. There are Republicans who can be easily labeled as Romney-types and Santorum-types, and you can predict who will win a state based on geography far more than sexier factors like momentum, endorsements, or debate performances.
The reason Michigan and Florida were propelled into the media spotlight—and why Ohio is on the top of everyone’s Super Tuesday radar—is because these states aren’t dominated by either a Romney or Santorum or Gingrich coalition. There’s still a bit of suspense left in these battleground states, and where there’s a sniff of uncertainty there’s a swarm of pundits waiting to sprinkle it with importance dust. But, no matter what happens in Ohio, the candidates are going to keep winning the same votes they’ve been winning since January, until Romney finally out-survives the other candidates in a war of attrition.
Romney attracts reliable numbers of the AARP crowd, college grads, voters looking for electability, and the 1 percent. According to exit polls, Romney won 51 percent of the 65+ vote in Florida. In Michigan, he won 49 percent. He won 47 percent of college grads in Florida, and 45 percent in Michigan. These supporters propelled him to victory in New Hampshire and will do the same again in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia tomorrow. He also pulls in reliable numbers of the rich and Mormons, which is why he won decisively in Nevada and Arizona.
Santorum has the same levels of stubbornly static support among conservatives and the religious right, which is why he won Missouri and Minnesota and was able to make an impressive show in Iowa. Gingrich has morphed into a lesser Santorum since Florida, and serves little function in the race except dropping a condescending media jab here and there. But, for a few weeks, he was the conservatives’ kingmaker, pulling a win in South Carolina and a second-place finish in Florida. There are still states that favor the strengths of these candidates—like all the states in the South voting tomorrow, over which Santorum and Gingrich have been playing tug-of-war. These two candidates’ claim on the most extreme wing of the Republican party have kept them in the race, and you can expect Rick and Newt to keep raking in delegates, since they won’t be leaving the race anytime soon.
Ron Paul’s set of fixed supporters comes from the 18-28 set, but unfortunately for him they don’t make up a big enough segment of the Republican party to keep him out of entertaining-but-irrelevant territory. No matter where the momentum, endorsements, and media take the candidates, they are all so weak that they can’t encroach on the others’ already claimed terrain, except for in well-matched states like Ohio.
So what makes a winner in states where at least two candidates have coalitions of equal size? The more money, the better. It's here that Romney has the advantage. Although the majority of Republican voters are predictable, there is some wiggle room with undecideds, whose small numbers can make a big difference in a close race. They are also the easiest to sway with a last-minute, million-dollar ad buy, likely to be paying attention to the race for the first time and unaware of the particulars or any candidate’s platform or personality. When Gingrich looked poised for an upset in Florida, Romney outspent him 5-to-1 on ads. Romney also outspent Santorum in Michigan when he was behind in the polls a week out from the election.
Ohio won't dramatically change the course of the race, but it will show whether the Romney campaign can keep clinching wins in these battleground states. And right now, he’s looking pretty good. Currently, the polls are moving in Romney’s favor in Ohio, as they did in Michigan and Florida. The Real Clear Politics average has Santorum up 34-31. Last week, he was up 33-26. Nate Silver has Romney with a 65 percent chance of winning.
Even if Romney loses, it is doubtful that it will be a significant-enough margin to mean anything. And his campaign coffers are still plentiful, despite doubts sparked by his plea for donations at the tail end of his Michigan victory. Restore Our Future and the candidate’s campaign have together spent over $3 million in Ohio. The super PAC is also spending more than $1 million in Tennessee and $500,000 in Oklahoma—the largest ad buys in those states.
Will not being able to capture any demographics outside of his usual suspects hurt Romney’s nomination chances? Maybe in another year, but lucky for him, his opponents are stuck in the same rut. Romney just needs to coast to the convention, and no matter the result in Ohio, he’ll soldier on. His campaign has always been at just the right height to get by, and it doesn’t look like that is going to change any time soon.