Wins, Delegates and the Long GOP Fight Ahead

by Stuart Rothenberg March 16, 2012 · 12:06 PM EDT

Driving into work on Wednesday morning, listening to parts of “Morning Joe” and “The Daily Rundown” on MSNBC on my radio, I was struck by how much I disagreed with all of the post-primary analysis.

The topic du jour, of course, was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s primary losses on Tuesday.

Maybe it was because I spent much of the previous week outside Washington, D.C., and was not in hourly touch with the latest Romney campaign comment, but I never expected him to win either of the Deep South states. If he did, I told an audience Tuesday afternoon, I would be surprised and I’d consider it a huge development.

So when he lost both Alabama and Mississippi, I yawned, noting however, that both states were an almost three-way photo finish — and therefore a nearly equal division of delegates.

But if you listened to two of the only three MSNBC shows I still consider watching (the other is “Andrea Mitchell Reports”) Wednesday morning, you would have thought Tuesday was a very big dose of bad news for the former governor.

Let’s be clear. Romney carries certain primary constituencies and loses others. Mississippi and Alabama looked like inhospitable places for him, and he came in third. That’s a dog-bites-man story.

We are at the point in the GOP race where observers should be transitioning quickly from “wins” to “delegates,” and on Tuesday, neither former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) nor former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) gained ground on Romney in the crucial delegate hunt.

But isn’t Romney weak because he can’t win in core Republican states? That was the post-mortem chatter.

Here is the answer: No. Romney is stronger than Santorum and Gingrich among the kinds of voters — urban and suburban, upscale, the less religious, the more moderate and moderately conservative — who will pick the next president in swing states. Who cares that he is weaker than his GOP rivals in South Carolina, Alabama and even Tennessee?

In fact, a candidate whose greatest appeal is to evangelical, very conservative voters probably is going to have a hard time in Northern Virginia; suburban Denver; suburban Clark County, Nevada; suburban Ohio and Florida’s I-4 corridor — the moderate voters in swing states who will elect the next president.

After the political roller coaster that we’ve seen over the past year, you would think that veteran observers (or at least people on television) would use a little wider perspective in evaluating and explaining Tuesday’s GOP results. I don’t expect the candidates to do that because they are all about regurgitating a message and deluding themselves to believe that they can and will win. They have to do that each morning and begin their campaign grind.

Romney would love to knock out his rivals, broaden his coalition and sweep quickly to the GOP nomination. But none of that is happening, and to expect it to change this past Tuesday or next Tuesday is simply unrealistic.

That doesn’t change the reality, though. Romney remains far ahead in delegates, even after most states in the South have had their primaries. Because the calendar still includes plenty of states with large urban and suburban Republican populations and more moderate voters, and with the former governor still having the most resources and organization, Romney remains the solid favorite for the Republican nomination. It will be messy — it already is — but that’s a different matter.

While the early primaries and caucuses were about wins and losses as candidates tried to create some momentum, the GOP race is now a long grind of accumulating delegates. And as the Romney folks understood all along, delegates from Guam and American Samoa count just as much as delegates from Alabama.

Does the long fight damage the Republican Party? Of course it’s a problem, not an asset.

Yes, the fight in 2008 between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton exposed a fracture in the Democratic Party — between African-Americans and upscale white liberals on one side and working-class white voters on the other — but the contest for the Democratic nomination lacked the downright meanness that is already apparent in this year’s GOP battle.

The Republicans are calling each other liars, and the bitterness between the three leading candidates is palpable. In addition, the existence of super PACs, and the differences in the candidates’ resources, has ratcheted up the rhetoric and the feelings of unfairness.

Moreover, the 2008 Democratic race took place after eight years of President George W. Bush, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drawing increased criticism, America’s banking system teetering and economic forecasts growing increasingly gloomy. Americans were hungry for change, and the Democrats were battling over two interesting, talented voices for that change.

This year’s GOP field is simply less imposing than the 2008 Democratic field. Romney has weaknesses, but at least he crosses the threshold of credibility as a candidate for president. Most of the other Republican hopefuls either fell quickly by the wayside or have yet to demonstrate they have the broad appeal needed to win the White House.

The fight between Romney, Santorum and Gingrich has dominated the national media, but not in a good way. Most of what we have learned about the candidates is not favorable — Romney’s tax rate, his wife’s two Cadillacs, Santorum’s views on birth control and Gingrich’s ego. No wonder Romney’s personal ratings have suffered over the past few months.

Sometimes in politics, as in life, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that has happened in the case of Obama, who became stronger among swing voters when they didn’t think about him and his performance in office.

The longer the Republican race continues, the more the focus is on the GOP and the less it is on the president. That can’t be good for the eventual Republican nominee.

Yes, it is possible that the fight for the nomination will help Romney round into general election form, but given the former Massachusetts governor’s political instincts and his preference for a scripted campaign, it’s far from clear the long fight will sharpen Romney’s skills for the fall.

So, the idea that the long fight is an asset for Republicans or doesn’t entail significant risks is laughable. It simply isn’t the same thing as the 2008 Democratic contest.