Mitt Romney’s Super Tuesday wasn’t a disaster, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it good, either. The primaries he won decisively—Massachusetts, Virginia, Vermont, and Idaho—were ones where he held an overwhelming advantage; either he was governor, or he was in friendly territory, or he was one of two candidates on the ballot. The states he lost were also expected, on account of their deep conservatism and religiosity. Georgia went to Newt Gingrich, while Rick Santorum picked up wins in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.
Of course, Ohio is where Romney focused his attention, in an attempt to knock Santorum off of his game and out of the race. He missed his mark by a wide shot. Romney barely managed to secure a win in Ohio, picking up the Buckeye State with a lead of 1 percentage point—roughly 12,000 votes. If you look at a map of the results, what you’ll see is a sea of Santorum supporters, with a few islands of Romney holdouts; these are the urban centers, which by the end of the night went for Romney in huge numbers, giving him a small but insurmountable margin of victory.
The good news for Romney is that he will walk away from Super Tuesday with a solid majority of delegates thanks to his campaign organization in Ohio—which is what happens when you have a professional campaign team that knows the rules of the road—and lopsided victories in Massachusetts and Idaho. Indeed, there’s nothing about this night that changes the math for his campaign: With the most endorsements, the most money, and the most support from the party’s institutions, he is still on his way to the Republican presidential nomination.
But this was an incredibly ugly victory. To get to a 1 point lead over Santorum, Romney and his allies had to spend more than $4 million and swamp the former Pennsylvania senator with a torrent of attacks and negative ads. It took nearly $40 per vote for Romney to break even with someone who lost his last election by 18 points and whose national reputation is defined by belligerent warmongering and vicious homophobia. While the Romney campaign will spin this as a definitive win, the fact is that this is another footnote in the story that will define his campaign: Republican voters don’t like Mitt Romney and will avoid voting for him at all costs. The next two primaries are in Alabama and Mississippi, and it’s hard to believe that Romney will perform better there than he did last night.
Eventually, we’ll get to a point where it is more than clear that Romney is the nominee, and Republican voters will have to get behind him if they’re interested in winning the presidential election. Still, the mere fact that Santorum’s junior-varsity campaign can stay competitive with Romney’s is a sign of the former governor’s deep unpopularity with Republicans.
Indeed, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we are watching something unseemly with the Republican presidential primaries, as one desperate, craven politician faces off against a resentful, angry demagogue. To a large extent, the American people share Republicans’ misgivings. When asked to describe this contest, they let loose with the worst possible assessments, “unenthusiastic,” “discouraged,” “lesser of two evils,” “painful,” “disappointed,” “poor choices,” “concerned,” “underwhelmed,” “uninspiring,” and “depressed.”
Six months from now, when the general election is in full swing, the political climate could—and likely will—look different from what it is now. But I think that those impressions will stick, and while there is no way to prove that they’ll affect the ultimate outcome of the election, I have a hard time believing that they won’t.