In an otherwise sharp article about Mitt Romney's sudden troubles in Michigan, The Atlantic's Molly Ball opens with an analysis that's been parroted by many in the media since Rick Santorum's sudden rise last week:
In one view, Mitt Romney has had it effectively wrapped up for weeks. Rick Santorum's freak victory in three contests last week was a meaningless blip -- a speed bump. Sure, Santorum now leads in some polls, but he's fundamentally a small-time candidate who's about to get crushed like a bug by Romney and his allies. What we're witnessing now isn't drama -- it's death throes.
The other view: Romney has never been weaker. The conservative brushfire that powered Santorum in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado is now a raging inferno that threatens to engulf the fragile front-runner. Desperate and flailing, Romney is on the verge of total collapse. With a natural and specific appeal in many of the upcoming primary states, Santorum is poised to sweep into Super Tuesday and become unstoppable.
I don't think there is such a stark dichotomy; there's truth to both of these views.
Santorum is a lackluster candidate by any measure. He has trailed every candidate in fundraising by a wide margin; in 2011, Santorum couldn't even manage to raise half as much money as Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out almost half a year before the primaries. The latest campaign-finance disclosure only included donations up to December 31, and Santorum's bank account has ballooned since his victory in Iowa and subsequent Midwest caucuses, but he is certainly nowhere near Romney when it comes to money.
As ABC's Shushannah Walshe and Michael Falcone reported yesterday, Santorum's campaign still lacks a headquarters, a pollster, or paid advance staff—all basic necessities for running any sort of national campaign. The reality is that Santorum's seat-of-his pants bid can pass muster in the smaller states where his grassroots charm can sway voters in smaller turnout elections. The surge of momentum isn’t a product of the candidate's fundamentals; it's a media-driven phenomenon that has placed too much emphasis on three wins in largely meaningless states that the other candidates mostly bypassed. And as I said yesterday, Super Tuesday could be a devastating day for Santorum unless Gingrich drops out and the former Pennsylvania senator captures a majority of support in southern states.
At the same time, Romney is clearly enfeebled by the extended primary. His net favorability has sunk to such a low—negative 24 percent according to Talking Points Memo's poll aggregator—that it is indeed hard to imagine him capturing the party's nomination. If there were any remaining plausible candidate, one satisfactory enough to the non-extremist wings of Republicanism Romney would have good reason to be afraid that the nomination would slip through his fingers. But Santorum is not such a candidate. Romney might still be fragile, but it's a general election vulnerability. The prolonged fight to secure the Republican nomination has prompted Romney to adopt a mix of conservative ideals toxic for the general election. "This kind of assault on religion will end if I'm president of the United States," Romney said of Obama's decision to include birth control as a mandatory part of health insurance. As long as Santorum sticks around, Romney will continue to stake out such positions outside the mainstream of independents, all for fear of offending the social extremists that constitute an outsized portion of the Republican primary electorate.
The current state of the Republican race is likely just a momentary hiccup on Romney's inevitable path to gaining his party's nomination. But it is one that will have consequences. Even if voters hate negativity, it tends to work. Romney is about to unleash an onslaught of ads against Santorum in Michigan that should drag the former senator back down a peg. Romney will pay a cost though, potentially bringing his unfavorable numbers among independents to a new low. A candidate is poised to take advantage of Romney should he drop over that edge of total collapse; it just won't be Santorum. Barack Obama must be feeling more confidence in his re-election with each passing day of the sideshow.