This week, Michigan was the “must win” state for Mitt Romney. Next week—according to the world of punditry—it’s Ohio, where Romney has to win over a similar electorate—downscale, blue-collar workers—without the help of name recognition or family ties. There, his tendency to remind voters of his massive wealth (in the worst way possible), could prove fatal.
But what would actually happen if Romney lost Ohio? He wouldn’t lose the nomination; even with the setbacks of the last month, the fact remains that Romney is advantaged by overwhelming resources and the support of GOP leaders. Moreover, he’s up against an opponent—Rick Santorum—whose popularity with the base of the Republican Party hasn’t been enough to make up for his lack of cash and poor public performances. It’s much easier to beat a candidate who can’t help but disparage college, rail against birth control, and attack the religious beliefs of millions of Americans.
The most obvious consequence of a loss in Ohio is that the primaries would continue, as muddled and divisive as they’ve been since the beginning of the year. The proportional allocation of delegates on Super Tuesday means that both Romney and Santorum are likely to walk away with a fair number of delegates. What’s more, with a big win behind him, Santorum can convince donors and voters to take a chance on his candidacy, and continue the fight.
Of course, if Romney is still the favorite for the nomination, then we can safely assume that a short expiration date on this second Santorum surge. It might sustain him through March or even April, but Mitt Romney is the only candidate in the race with the organization and resources needed to make it to the end.
That said, it’s at the end of the process where an Ohio loss might matter most for Romney. If Santorum wins in Ohio, it doesn’t just fuel his case that he is the most electable conservative; it bolsters the broader right-wing conviction that “true conservatives” are the party’s best bet for victory in November.
The right wing of the Republican Party has convinced itself that moderation is fatal to the electoral success of conservatism; they blame the GOP’s post-Bush unpopularity on the former president’s “moderate” policies, and they blame John McCain’s loss on the same. The 2010 midterm elections—in which Tea Party Republicans took control of the House—gave ammunition to their claim, and 2012 is the year where they intend to prove it.
If Romney wins Ohio and sweeps other Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, it reinforces the established view that his moderation will take the GOP to victory in the fall. Losing to a right-wing Republican, on the other hand, would give Tea Party conservatives the leverage they need to demand absolute fealty from the eventual nominee. The argument is straightforward: If you move to the center, you’ll lose, just as Republicans lost in the last election. We proved that conservatism wins, and if you want our support, you’ll be sure to tout our message at every opportunity.
Put another way, if Romney loses Ohio, he might also lose the room he needs to make a move to the center during the general election. And if this seems unlikely, remember—Romney has already made huge jumps to the right during this campaign. Romney is so desperate to win the GOP’s approval that if the base tells him to jump, he’ll almost always ask, “How high?”