What did Romney accomplish? He reversed doubts for many after South Carolina that his campaign was in danger. Coming out of SC Gingrich looked to be the frontrunner and he had closed the poll numbers gap in Florida. But then Romney went to work. He went aggressive against Newt again, much like he did in Iowa. The difference here was not simply that the Romney and pro-Romney Super-PAC ads were negative, Romney went on the offensive in debates and in personal appearances. Mitt finally demonstrated a capacity to street fight and it paid off. Exit polls suggested he won across many constituencies too. He leaves FL with lots of momentum and a primary and caucus schedule that seems to favor him in states such as Nevada and Michigan over the next few weeks. If Gingrich holds on to Super Tuesday on March 7, then he may see some big wins for him in the south again. However, Romney’s win was solid and now we look to MN, Nevada, and Missouri to see if the Romney momentum continues.
But think about the strategy that Romney used to win. In part it benefitted from a weak Gingrich debate performance twice last week, but the elements were overwhelming money, organization, and nasty attack ads. This appears to be the formula Romney and his supporters will use in every state–simply crush the opposition with force.
But the strategy has problems. First, compare this GOP primary process to Obama-Clinton in 2008. As Obama campaigned on he became a stronger candidate who was more popular. Now as the GOP process goes on Romney’s negatives are increasing. Romney won less because people liked him and more because money and attack ads repelled them from Gingrich. Clearly the one real winner in Florida was Super-PAC and Romney Romney money that outspent Gingrich $16 million to $4 million. Thus, the primary victory demonstrated Romney as the lesser of two evils. He still has not won over the conservative and Tea Party base, and one still does not see a passionate flocking to Romney. He is just the strongest surviving.
The negatives that Romney has achieved will hurt him in a general election. But also while Romney may have superior money and organization against the other GOP he will not have that against Obama. He needs more than that–he needs the passion and so far it is not there. But then again, the same is true for Obama, thus pitting two candidates who will have great organization and money, limited appeal to swings, and varying levels of passion among supporters.
But the Gingrich-Romney battle is also about the future direction of the Republican Party and what it stands for. It is about orthodoxy. (See my blog post from July 25, 2012 discussing this issue in more detail) But it is orthodoxy in a different way. Conventional wisdom–as defined by the political pundits, pollsters, and party leaders–believe Romney to be a better candidate against Obama than Gingrich. These are the same people who thought Romney had it nailed down after New Hampshire, only to see Romney collapse and lose South Carolina. Romney is no stronger a candidate today than four years ago. Both times he finished second in Iowa with 25%, both times won as expected in New Hampshire, and both times was trounced in South Carolina. Except for last week, his debate performances have been average at best, and Romney’s only claim to superiority–money and organization–have been repeatedly challenged. He now has dramatically higher negatives than before, and he is typecast as an out of touch rich guy...which he is. Obama can destroy this guy who is so conventional and boring.
My point with all of this? Romney won but the primary is tearing the Republican Party apart at a time when a united one is needed if they want to win in November. It seems as if the GOP is looking a lot more like the Democratic Party usually does.
Last thought: On to Minnesota? Romney is in MN today after Florida. Let us see how well the post Sunshine state momentum flows and whether next Tuesday he can win our presidential preference poll at the caucuses.