What Could Be Next in the Race for President?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 23, 2012 · 9:35 AM EDT

Mr. Irrelevant is the term given to the last player selected in the NFL draft, a reflection of the long odds he faces in making an NFL roster. Increasingly, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has become the Mr. Irrelevant in the GOP race for the presidential nomination.

Gingrich won’t get out of the race, but he won’t fight for the nomination either. He has limited himself to competing here and there so that he can make an increasingly bizarre, out-of-touch primary night speech about his vision and his prospects.

If you don’t compete in Illinois and finish a weak fourth there (behind even Texas Rep. Ron Paul) after a weak third in Ohio (where you received 15 percent of the vote), you really aren’t a factor for the GOP nomination. It’s as simple as that. Oh, and you don’t deserve to have the cable networks cover your speeches, either.

A little more than a month ago in this space, I asked, “Just How Much Does Gingrich Hate Romney?” The answer now seems pretty obvious: not as much as he loves running for president.

Gingrich’s exit a few weeks ago might not have benefited Rick Santorum enough to help the former Pennsylvania Senator overtake Mitt Romney, but at least a two-person contest would have offered the GOP a clean, clear choice. Now, it’s getting too late for a possible one-on-one race to matter.

The only hope for the anti-Romney forces now seems to be a credentials fight, which certainly could still occur. While Florida was penalized for jumping into the early primary/caucus window, it also violated party rules by assigning delegates on a winner-take-all basis, so a credentials fight over that easily could occur.

That’s one reason Romney needs to wrap up the nomination sooner rather than later. Not only would a credentials fight make the party’s internal division even deeper and more difficult to heal, it could be a problem for the former Massachusetts governor if he is well short of the delegates he needs to lock up the nomination.

Still, the division in the GOP ranks shows no sign of healing soon. Romney continues to run well among upscale voters, non-evangelicals, less conservative Republicans and those who live in urban and suburban areas. He still is faring poorly among rural voters, the most conservative Republicans and evangelicals. It has been that way in almost every state, and there is nothing he can do about it. Nothing.

Romney has spent four years insisting that he is conservative, but nobody believes him.

It is no surprise that evangelical conservatives don’t believe him, but it’s noteworthy that Romney’s own supporters also don’t believe him.

That’s why his supporters are still supporting him after months, even years, of Romney trying to position himself to the right. Romney supporters figure that all of his conservative rhetoric on social issues and immigration is just a play for conservative voters in the primary, so they ignore it and figure he’ll be a mainstream, business conservative as the GOP nominee. And that suits them just fine.

The next big event I’m watching for isn’t the next primary but the next NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Since the late February/early March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll came out showing the “right track” poll number continuing to grow and the president’s job approval hitting 50 percent, three other surveys — ABC News/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times and Fox News — have come out showing a very different trend.

All three were conducted only a week or so after the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.

In all three, President Barack Obama’s numbers were softening, not strengthening, and he looked to be in worse shape for the general election.

If the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll confirms what the other three showed, it’s obviously terrible news for the White House.

Most observers have assumed that a growing economy would improve the president’s re-election prospects (dramatically if the improvement in unemployment and consumer confidence were strong enough), but weaker Obama numbers in the face of better economic numbers — possibly made irrelevant by higher gas prices and talk of a war in the Middle East — would suggest that opposition to the president is quicker to harden than previously thought.

While Democrats can take advantage of the GOP’s poor image and of Romney’s wealth and stiffness to portray the general election as a fight for the middle class against the rich, Romney is still best positioned to make the election a referendum on Obama, on the president’s performance over the past four years and on the public’s confidence (or lack of confidence) about the results of a second Obama term.

Given that the 2012 presidential contest still looks as if it will turn on the decisions of swing voters in 10 states, November’s results are not at all a foregone conclusion.

Correction: My last column on the prospects of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) incorrectly stated that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Mitt Romney after Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s exit from the GOP race. In fact, Jindal has not endorsed any candidate since Perry left the race.