Mitt Romney’s ambitions for the 2012 primary have never been mysterious. He’s in it to win it, and with a weak field, the primaries should have been a mere prelude to his coronation. Things haven't worked out that way.
First there was Rick Perry in September, a chiseled Texan with conservative cred, undone by his inability to list more than two government agencies at a prime-time debate. Herman Cain, charismatic and entertainingly unpredictable, was finally brought down by a raft of sexual harassment-allegations in October. After the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich took the lead, but Gingrich couldn’t overcome his own reputation and inability to be likeable. Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator with antiquated social views, seemed destined to sit on the bench the whole primary season, but has suddenly been catapulted to the front of the pack because of his appeal to the most conservative edge of the party.
When facing the first few challengers, Romney wasn’t worried. He kept his campaign message focused on the general election. The media’s take on the GOP primary has remained in fast-forward mode, too; of course Romney was the inevitable nominee—the GOP base just needed to get on board.
However, the media couldn’t predict how bad a candidate Romney would be. His off-hand comments on wealth and inequality are cringe-worthy, and his debate performances, campaign speeches, grassroots efforts, and singing ability are serviceable at best. Although he picked up wins in New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada, his conservative brother-in-arms’ solid wins in the South and the Midwest show that he still has a long way to go. A race that supposedly ended in the fall looks as though it might sputter all the way to the convention in August, and Romney actually needs to stop planning his general election strategy and start fighting to protect his inevitable candidacy.
The biggest weapon in Romney’s arsenal is cash, which is the best card to hold when facing a potentially glacial primary fight. Romney will repeat his Florida strategy of blasting the airwaves with more ads than his opponents in Michigan, Super Tuesday, and beyond. He can also afford far more staff than Santorum, although he hasn’t invested much money in bolstering his campaign’s ground game. All Romney needs to stay at the front of the pack is a string of wins that give him a sustained burst of momentum, and when primary contests become a multi-state affair as the race wears on, Romney is the only candidate with the funds to set up campaign offices and spend money on ads on multiple fronts.
Romney’s biggest problem is that he hasn’t found his base, and that he can’t steal social conservatives from Santorum or Gingrich. And as Zeke Miller pointed out on Wednesday, being able to outspend other candidates may not always be an option. Over 82 percent of Romney’s 2011 fundraising came in amounts over $1,000, which means that the 1 percent well is running dry. Santorum, on the other hand, has seen his fundraising gain as much momentum as his poll numbers after his recent primary sweep.
But Santorum’s threat to Romney has probably been overstated, too. If Romney’s campaign has been running on cruise control, Santorum’s campaign is the Flinstones’ car—the social conservative’s campaign does not have the infrastructure to transition to the big leagues yet, and if the money runs out his campaign will be done. Santorum’s platform is also troublesome, and his social-issues-heavy, economics-lite stump speeches may hit a wall when he challenges Romney in bigger and more moderate states.
Although the Michigan primary on February 28 is being set up as a game changer, it won't be. Even if Santorum wins—and that's looking increasingly likely—the basic dynamics of the race will stay the same. While the rest of the candidates have dialed up the antics as though they were the cast of Jersey Shore, Romney is playing Survivor: Outwit, outplay, outlast. Once everyone else gets voted off the island, Romney thinks he will be the last one standing. It’s not a strategy to fire up the base a la Obama 2008, but Romney will never be the fiercest candidate. He’s the GOP’s safe bet, and he knows it.