As I mentioned earlier, there is a dire worry hanging over tonight's primaries that if Mitt Romney does not perform to some set of specific expectations, the GOP establishment will have no choice but to find some new candidate to jump into the race and save the day. That's enough to make it likely that tonight's results will get sucked into some overhyped media narrative that will perpetuate talk of late-entering hero candidates and deadlocked conventions. As Jonathan Bernstein noted yesterday, InTrade is currently giving the "deadlocked convention" outcome somewhere in the area of a 20 percent likelihood, and that's been inflated by nothing but panic and hype.
It's crazy enough that this standard for outcomes and expectations was being applied to tonight's primaries. Oh! And I say "was" in this instance because apparently, this craziness has already moved past tonight's Michigan primary, and the panic window has now widened to include Super Tuesday. As Andy Kroll reports (emphasis mine):
On CNN Tuesday morning, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, hinted at a whisper campaign among "top Republicans" who want a GOP favorite such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) to enter the race if Romney loses the Michigan or Arizona primaries or struggles on Super Tuesday, when 10 states controlling 437 delegates hold GOP primaries on March 6. "I think there’s going to be more of an interest, more of an emphasis on having someone ready if on Super Tuesday ... Mitt Romney does not manage to break loose, and to have that candidate ready to come in," King said. He added, "Again, I have no inside knowledge. Just whispering and mumbling here among top Republicans who are concerned that Governor Romney has not been able to break loose."
Look, I can't stress this enough. There are 59 total delegates at stake tonight, and Romney has won 29 of them (all of Arizona's) right at this very moment in time. The very moment he wins a single congressional district in Michigan, Romney "wins" the night. He moves closer to the goal of 1,144 than anyone else in the field. He widens his lead on the way to 1,144 delegates over the rest of the field. There is no conceivable scenario, short of an unforeseen and epic disaster, where Romney doesn't end up tonight in a better position than where he began.
But, if we can believe all of the whispers and mumbles that Peter King is hearing (and, mind you there's no compelling reason to do so, but let's just go with it here), then we're already way past Michigan being the contest that gets everyone in a panic attack over an unnamed entrant into the primary process.
There's no other way to read this other than to say that Rick Santorum's spin machine has already won, and that the firm and planted narrative is that he deserves credit for having pushed Romney to exert a significant amount of effort just to win his home state. Which, in the end, he might not "win." In fact, it seems clear now that if Santorum wins the largest share of Michigan's statewide vote, Romney -- at a minimum -- will have to make some show of "shaking up his campaign staff." That's all bad enough. But now, a Romney win in Michigan isn't enough to settle the nerves of the GOP establishment. Rather, Mitt Romney is required to "break loose" on Super Tuesday in order to quell the talk of a new nominee parachuting into the campaign.
The problem, of course, is that Mitt Romney is not going to "break loose" on Super Tuesday. He'll likely do very, very well. (Here's a magic trick for you: snap your fingers. Boom! Romney just won Virginia! It was as easy as that!) But he's not going to achieve this new standard by which the talk of adding to the GOP field gets quieted. As Josh Putnam at Frontloading HQ (FHQ) points out, "The simple truth of the matter is that it is a foregone conclusion that Romney will underperform on some level next week."
I don't think we have enough total data on this yet, but FHQ is still fairly confident in saying that the South is a problem area for Romney (see South Carolina), but that the Northeast is comparatively stronger for the former Massachusetts governor. Will Romney have some setbacks in the South next week? Yes, I would say that he will in the wins and losses columns. However, the fact that only Paul and Romney are on the ballot in Virginia means that Romney is well-positioned to use the Old Dominion as a delegate cache to neutralize any delegate losses suffered in Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The big question mark at this time is the Midwest. There has yet to be a midwestern primary -- until Michigan -- from which we will have the ability to project onto subsequent midwestern primaries like Ohio on Super Tuesday. From the look of it, Michigan -- and perhaps the rest of the Midwest -- will be competitive.
Romney does well in primaries. Romney does better in primaries in which he can bank early votes (see Florida and Arizona). Romney does well in caucus states in which he has organized (see Iowa and Nevada). Romney does poorly in caucuses in which he has not organized or not organized as much relative to those early caucuses.
Putnam's "bottom line," spoken with his perennially calming voice, is that no matter what happens in Michigan tonight, Romney "will suffer setbacks next week."
What's even stranger is that you have to wonder why anyone who's hanging out with Peter King doesn't understand that the way the GOP's primary process is designed actually favors the likelihood that no one gets "shook out" next week. Super Tuesday has 10 contests, will award 437 delegates, and those delegates will get spread around by dint of proportional allocation even if one candidate runs most of the table.
Everyone should understand this! But King's whisperers and mumblers evidently did not get the memo, and so they are close to having a conniption over the fact that Romney hasn't proven able to "break lose." What's even more insane, however, is that their solution to the problem -- send in reinforcements! -- only compounds this problem. In other words, these folks are so concerned that Romney hasn't sealed the deal already that they are prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure no one seals the deal later.
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