Last night, Mitt Romney managed to win most of the delegates available, was victorious in a majority of the states that held contests, and clawed his way back from a double-digit polling deficit in Ohio to eke out a victory.
This wasn't necessarily his "best-case scenario" -- had Romney maxed out last night, he might have ended up with 250 delegates or more -- but the 210 he took was well within expectations. He got closer to the magic 1,144 number and widened his lead on his competitors.
But did Romney stomp his competitors into literal puddles of bone and viscera last night? No? Well, then, sorry everyone! Last night's result was actually a split decision. Just like this year's Super Bowl was a split decision, because the New England Patriots scored 17 of the 38 points total produced in the contest.
Look: Everyone understands that Mitt Romney is a historically weak frontrunner, and his fortunes thus far have essentially hung on his campaign's ability to marshal the forces of darkness in attack ads that cost millions.
And we understand that Romney isn't seen as ideologically pure and that plenty of conservatives are leery of a candidate with a history of politically convenient flip-flopping and isolated flirtations with moderateness and/or liberalness. This is what I mean when I say that Romney is having trouble "sealing the deal." But Romney's "deal-sealing" problems are more worrisome in a general election, when he'll depend on being able to field an enthusiastic army of supporters to go out and get him votes. As far as the primary process is going, he's actually doing a much better job "sealing the deal" than any of his competitors.
But because this process is designed to be elongated, and because the media loves exciting storylines, a night where Mitt Romney went out and did everything he was supposed to do has been turned into a Pyrrhic victory for Rick Santorun and Newt Gingrich, two guys who split a smaller portion of delegates between the two of them, underperformed throughout the night (Santorum couldn't crack a vote threshold in Georgia enough to earn back some delegates; Gingrich didn't finish above third place in any other state than Georgia), and who have big limitations on their campaign infrastructure going forward.
What everyone should be saying today is that we now have a race between one guy who could conceivably notch the nomination and three guys who -- acting in concert -- might be able to do enough to deny him the win by the time the primary season ends in June. Instead, we're hearing that Romney could not deliver the "knockout punch" in a contest that ended up a "Republican Split Decision" and that it's actually Romney who has "no clear path to victory."
This is the sort of stuff I am referring to when I talk about the political media's propensity for senselessly mystifying the political process. And as Sam Stein pointed out today, Romney's mere ability to take "tangible steps towards securing the GOP presidential nomination" doesn't seem to be good enough for anyone. He's winning, but he's not winning in awesome enough fashion. And last night the "pundits" who "once predicted [Romney] would coast to the nomination was forced, once more, to reassess and start again." And they will have their revenge on Mitt Romney, for that time he was in a series of primaries and caucuses where delegates were portioned out according to a non-uniform set of state-level rules that apparently no one bothered to familiarize themselves with before they decided to saddle Romney with a set of unreasonable expectations.
But of all the things I've read today, the sine qua non of this phenomenon has to be NBC's First Read, which apparently woke up today with the need to publish a broadsheet of pointless wankery in lieu of actually summarizing last night's events. Romney, we are told, is "unable to pull away" from the crowd which is an interesting observation to make given the fact that a) there were only 400-some-odd proportionally allocated delegates to be had last night, as opposed to say, several hundred winner-take-all delegates, and b) despite that, Romney definitely pulled away anyway.
First Read says:
It's hard to imagine that someone could win the most delegates (and a MAJORITY of all available) on Super Tuesday, the most states, and -- after midnight -- the big prize of Ohio, but still come out of it bloodier and more bruised than when the day began. But that's exactly what seemed to happen to Mitt Romney last night.
Is it that hard to imagine, though? Apparently not, because their next two sentences read as follows:
Yesterday, we wrote that Super Tuesday could come down to math vs. perception. And the perception from Super Tuesday was that Romney continues to win when it matters, but that he also continues to be unable to put the GOP race away, despite enjoying almost every advantage (the money, the organization, the pro-Romney Super PAC, the fact that this is his second presidential bid, the divided Santorum-Newt vote).
So, if you discount everything they wrote yesterday, in which they rather easily imagined that "someone could win the most delegates (and a MAJORITY of all available) on Super Tuesday...but still come out of it bloodier and more bruised than when the day began," then, yeah, I guess it's hard to imagine? But here's a pro-tip for the First Readers -- if you tell your readers on Tuesday to be on the alert for a bullshit narrative on Wednesday, y'all probably shouldn't be the ones writing up the bullshit narrative you warned everyone about.
But First Read sallies on:
The story on Romney remains the same as it was six months ago: It's difficult to see how he's denied the nomination, but it's also difficult how he gets there, at least as soon as he wants to.
I don't know! I'm guessing that maybe he racks up an impressive array of endorsements, banks a lot of money, builds a campaign organization that's capable of getting on the ballot in Virginia and slating all his delegates in Ohio, and denies your cash-strapped opponents media-freebies by pulling out of the remaining debates (and then never paying any consequences for doing so). This is just an idea I had.
Next First Read asks the question: "Why is Romney unable to pull away?" The very next sentence should be: "Because the RNC designed a primary process in such a way to make it more likely that the candidates competed against each other later into the year, THE END." Instead, we get a flurry of completely unsurprising exit poll data, with an improperly surmised conclusion tacked onto the end:
According to the exit polls in Ohio, Santorum easily won among very conservatives (48%-30%) and overall conservatives (41%-35%), while Romney won the other ideological subgroups (somewhat conservatives, moderates/liberals). Santorum won Tea Party supporters (39%-36%), while Romney won Tea Party detractors (45%-30%). And Santorum ran up the score with evangelicals (47%-30%). Given that kind of very conservative resistance we've seen in other contests -- Iowa, South Carolina, Michigan, and Ohio -- it's a tribute to Romney that he remains on track to winning the GOP presidential nomination. But it also explains why he's unable to pull away from his under-funded and less-organized opposition.
Again, it's sort of dumb to say that Romney is "unable to pull away from his under-funded and less-organized opposition" hours after he did that very thing, about as well as he could have been expected to do.
Then we proceed to this odd thought-construction: "The good news for Romney: He increases his delegate lead: So that's the bad news for Romney." I've got no idea what they're even talking about there. There's no evidence presented that demonstrates that there is a downside to increasing one's delegate lead. What downside exists seems to have nothing to do with delegates at all. Gingrich is strong in a couple of states whose contests are coming up! Santorum "has begun to ramp up his criticism of Romney's health-care law!" ("Begun to ramp up?" Have these guys missed those many times Santorum has said that a Romney nomination "gives away" the "repeal Obamacare" argument?)
In fact, the case that they go on to make suggests that there is no bad news for Romney:
But to demonstrate the math advantage Romney has, consider this: To get to 1,144, Santorum would need to win 62% of all REMAINING delegates [ed. note: which is a tall order]; if you assume that Romney wins in his regional strongholds (New York, Connecticut, etc.) [ed. note: he will], then Santorum needs to win in all other places at a 67% clip; and if you assume that party insider delegates (the RNC version of super delegates) break for Romney 65%-35% [ed. note: they will], then Santorum would need 71% of the remaining delegates in primaries, caucuses and conventions to get the nomination. Bottom line: The math for Santorum isn't TECHNICALLY impossible, but it's HIGHLY improbable. [ed. note: ya think?]
So, Santorum's "split" of the "split decision" is a set of existential improbabilities? Yeah, I'm going to call that a Romney victory, then. And we can look at the race like this: Mitt Romney is not yet in the catbird seat, but he's the only guy in the race with a path to a room in which the catbird seat is stored. Meanwhile, he has competitors who might -- might -- be able to bar that door.
Barring an event that could precipitate a complete collapse of Romney's support (Andrew Kaczynski could unearth a tape of Mitt Romney directing an undocumented immigrant gardner to administer a transvaginal ultrasound to Seamus the Dog while he sets a roll of $100 bills on fire), that's basically where the race is right now. Romney has problems closing the deal, yes, but his problems have nothing to do with a primary process that's designed to prevent any one candidate from pulling away too quickly. And I'll say this again -- if the field featured Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie, no one would have a discouraging word to say about the prolongation. Everyone would think the process was wonderful. Mitt Romney's problems remain with GOP elites who are having trouble "falling in like" with him.
Given the fact that First Read had previously tipped their readers to watch out for, and try to distinguish between "math and perception" to guard against the gauzy games that political media types play for the sake of "analysis," it's puzzling that they decided to go back into the waters they'd tried to clear and remuddy them. If I had to guess, I'd say that this odd decision to not simply let Real Talk prevail is based primarily on the short term primary schedule, which features contests in Mississippi and Alabama where Romney is not expected to do well. So here they set up a nice bend in the narrative before Romney inevitably re-asserts himself and continues to do all the "pulling away" that he managed to do last night, perfectly fine.
It just goes to show how much cognition you have to sacrifice to manufacture a soupcon of melodrama.
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