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Election Monitor: Santorum Is What Rick Perry Might Have Been -- Mitt Romney's Worst Nightmare

Posted: 02/28/2012 12:18 pm

Friends,

The looming threat to Romney winning the GOP nomination was never Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul it was always from the right. The assumption for team Romney was that it would come from Rick Perry. When Perry abandoned his run after a disastrous campaign, Romney's campaign apparatus could breathe a sigh of relief. Well that was premature. Beating Gingrich in Florida was easy compared to this. Santorum in Michigan is a political nightmare for Mitt Romney. And here is the biggest problem: even if Romney narrowly squeaks out a win tonight, Santorum may claim a moral victory by capturing more delegates. And things only get worse for Romney next week on Super Tuesday.

There is no doubt in our mind that over the last 72 hours we have seen a momentum shift toward Santorum in Michigan. There are a myriad of factors that have contributed to this:

  • Romney cannot seem to put together back to back good days. It feels like a lifetime ago, but Romney probably won last Tuesday's CNN debate in Mesa, Arizona. Santorum was stuck playing defense, with all three of his opponents ganging up on him about his Senate record. Romney then proceeded to take the air out of his surge with several gaffes that gave the media another reason to highlight the Governor's inability to "connect" with the average voter. It also appears to have given voters pause.
  • Gingrich's loss in vote share is likely shifting to Santorum. This is hard to determine without seeing the actual polling data, but our sense is that soft Gingrich voters are at least temporarily moving to Santorum.
  • We always knew that one candidate would make the "values" play, and the time was right for Santorum. His team wisely saw a hole and like a good running back ran right to it. The mainstream media can only talk about how poorly swing voters will reject this type of red-meat rhetoric in a general election -- which has some truth. However, they virtually ignore the fact that for a sizable segment of the GOP primary electorate this is music to their ears. Santorum is benefitting from this.
  • The Santorum campaign is simply executing better than team Romney right now. The Ford Field speech staging snafu and Governor Romney's inability to articulate a consistent positive theme have contributed to his stagnation in the polls. On the other hand, team Santorum has had a better closing positive message as well as some smart tactical moves including the robo-calls to Democrats to vote against Romney. Unions are helping with this of course.
  • Our projection is that Romney will barely edge out Santorum in the popular vote, 40 percent - 38.5 percent. Santorum's early surge was replaced by a Romney pushback and that has now almost entirely faded. Romney is aided by the fact that 30 percent have already voted and the assumption is that he will win that group by 3 to 5 percent. But for those who vote tonight, Santorum will likely win by a point or two. As Nate Silver notes, Michigan is a state which awards many delegates proportionally based on the winner of each Congressional district. So, while Michigan is undoubtedly the state with the more exciting storyline, it's not particularly important in the delegate race between Romney and Santorum. It will, however, be virtually the only story tonight.


There are other things to consider as we move forward:

  • Gingrich is no longer campaigning in Arizona and Michigan, focusing on Super Tuesday states and Georgia in particular. While punting on two states where he was far behind is a smart strategy, we can't help but feel his candidacy is now entering a period of inexorable decline. Still, with the money he has raised and the benefits of his continued front-runner treatment from the media, Gingrich will likely remain in the race for a while to come.
  • Ron Paul continues to help Romney by attacking the records of his more conservative opponents. We've seen this with Cain, Gingrich and now Santorum. Paul staying in the race helps Romney by keeping Santorum from totally outflanking him to the right, particularly among Tea Party voters. Santorum has taken the conservative high ground from Romney, but Paul's well-researched criticism helps keep him honest.
  • Don't waste too much time thinking about a brokered convention. As Karl Rove points out, there are a number of obstacles. In our mind, the biggest is the nature of modern campaigns. Republican party leaders and any potential dark horse candidates all realize that not launching a campaign until this summer would put the GOP nominee at a tremendous disadvantage to Obama in fundraising, organization and simple voter familiarity. And even if some within the party would prefer to see Jeb Bush or Chris Christie as the nominee, no one wants to send out a candidate with one hand tied behind his back.
  • Despite all the talk about Super PACs, this year's GOP field is raising less money than 2008. At this point in the 2008 race, the combined field of Republicans had raised nearly a third more money. Even when the money from the new Super PAC campaign funding vehicles is added, Republicans this year have raised about 25 million less. Romney, this year's fundraising leader, is on a similar pace to his 2008 campaign. What's also interesting is how all three of Romney's remaining challengers are on a similar fundraising pace for January -- although Gingrich's Super PAC has benefitted from the support of some truly committed donors.
  • Finally, we predict Romney will defeat Santorum, 42 percent-32 percent in Arizona. While this race looked too close to call a couple of weeks ago, the recent widening in Romney's poll lead coupled with his victory in last week's debate make us confident that Romney will win. Voters have also been steadily moving away from Gingrich since Santorum's rise in the polls began, so we expect him to finish below his recent poll performance, near 12 percent, and Paul to end up in mid single-digits.


It's important to think about the GOP race in the context of the current political environment. This morning the Commerce Department announced that durable goods orders dropped 4 percent in January, falling at the fastest pace in three years. Economists expected a drop of 1.1 percent. So while things are looking up, Obama is not out of the woods yet.

Here is a quick snapshot of the president's re-election environment:

  • The mood of the country is 34 percent right direction/60 percent wrong track (Real Clear Politics average, Feb. 2-20). That's the highest right direction number since May 31 and a significant improvement from 17 percent right direction on October 13.
  • Obama's approval rating is a net positive for the first time since May 2011. The Real Clear Politics average for Feb. 5-25 is 47.6 percent approve/47.1 percent disapprove.
  • Obama leads at least three of the four Republican challengers. Rasmussen's daily tracking among likely voters has President Obama leading Mitt Romney, 45 percent-43 percent, and leading Santorum 47 percent-42 percent.
  • Romney wins only 79 percent of Republicans and leads by 3 among independents, while Obama takes 87 percent of Democrats. That's actually a good sign for Republicans, because it suggests there are still votes to be had in their own base, while the president has nearly tapped out his own.
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  • Despite the Republican candidates' recent fixation on social issues, Obama is actually perceived as the "extreme" candidate. Voters are significantly more likely to perceive that the president is too liberal than to perceive his Republican challengers as too conservative. In the Feb. 16-19 USA Today/Gallup poll, 51 percent said Obama was too liberal, compared to 38 percent who said Santorum is too conservative, and 33 percent who said the same about Romney. The numbers are nearly identical among independents.
  • So far, the recent focus on birth control, gay rights, and other social issues doesn't seem to have hurt the Republican candidates, but it's unclear how long that trend will last.


Special thanks to John Zirinsky, Jennifer Myers and Allison Quigley for their contributions to the Monitor. Follow us on Twitter: @Steve_Lombardo.

(Please note that the author was an advisor to the Romney for President campaign in 2008 but is not affiliated with any campaign in 2012.)

 

Follow Steve Lombardo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Steve_Lombardo

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