Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Romney Wins Two

Over at Plum Line I have a quick reaction to Romney's nice night in Michigan and Arizona.

Just to add a bit to what I said over there...I hope you don't mind if this is a bit self-something or other, but I'll start with something a bit more generally interesting I hope.

As I'll discuss below, I think Romney wrapped up the nomination in either South Carolina or Florida. I still do not believe that there's convincing evidence that he had it sewn up any earlier than that. If I recall correctly, Ed Kilgore wrote a column a ways back arguing against that idea, and I strongly agree with least to the extent that there's no major information that we don't know about yet. Barring that, however, I do believe that Tim Pawlenty could have broken through last summer had he happened to have had one or two good debates, and if that had happened or if he had found some other way to generate positive buzz, he might well have been the nominee. I have no idea why Rick Perry was so awesomely bad in the debates, but had he begun to improve just one debate earlier (and therefore avoided the iconic "oops" moment) I think it's very possible he would have regained enough ground to do well in Iowa, and then have been viable going forward. As for Rick Santorum, well, his initial break-out was very unlikely, but after that I have no idea why Republican party actors were so uninterested in rallying to him. Perhaps there was something he could have done differently in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire to change that. Maybe just showing up early on the networks and proclaiming victory while they were counting the votes in Iowa might have moved the needle enough. The point is that it probably didn't have to be this way. Romney may have always had the best chance to win, but it was still just a possibility, not a certainty.

OK, on to a little self-assessment, again with my apologies for being self-indulgent. I didn't quite have the nerve to say it at the time, but realistically I thought that Romney nailed down the nomination in South Carolina. Yes, South Carolina. The one that Romney got clobbered. I did say after that primary that "he’s probably a bit closer to winning it all now than he was after New Hampshire" and, as always, I ruled Newt Gingrich out, so all that was good, but I did say that Santorum "may still be barely viable." I should have taken the leap; it is what I was thinking, but it just didn't seem quite right to say it. After all, a week earlier I had said that if Newt won South Carolina (which I thought was unlikely, so I sure got that wrong), then Romney "would still all but certainly win the nomination."

Then, after Florida, I did call it over:
At this point, Romney essentially has the nomination wrapped up. Yes, people will point out that only a very small portion of delegates has been selected, but most of these contests are usually long over when the winner finally hits the mark that technically clinches it. Realistically, only some sort of external and utterly unexpected event could derail Romney now.
And I've been pretty much treading water ever since. As, for that matter, has Romney.

To grade myself...I think I've been a pretty good guide to the general structure of the race. The only thing I think I really was wrong about, as I've said, was that I should have noticed that Santorum might be viable in the very unlikely event that he ever took off, unlike Newt and Bachmann and Cain. Otherwise, though, I don't have anything I feel bad about on that score. And it's still not clear that Santorum was ever viable, for whatever that's worth.

Where I've been useless was in medium-term predictions about specific states. I was quick to see Santorum's surge in Iowa once it started, but didn't anticipate it at all. I thought Santorum would do much better in New Hampshire. I didn't see Newt's South Carolina surge in advance. I certainly didn't see Santorum's Colorado/Minnesota shocker. I got a few things right, but my score is terrible on these.

On the other hand, I have a ridiculously good record on election-day (or day-before-election) picks. I'm pretty sure, alas, that it's mostly luck, but I've had a string of hits on those guesses, starting with Santorum in Iowa and including the right call on Michigan today. So make of that what you will.

At any rate, while I think it's "over" in the sense that Romney is the nominee unless, as I said, some sort of external event happened (and here I'm thinking about a major scandal or health issue or something along those lines), that still leaves the possibility that we'll have heavily contested primaries for some weeks yet. Or, perhaps, Romney will win Ohio and one or more of GA/TN/OK next week, and the general election campaign will begin for real next Wednesday. But more about that, I think, later.


  1. "And it's still not clear that Santorum was ever viable, for whatever that's worth."

    Isn't the incredible paucity of endorsements evidence that Republican officeholders didn't think he was viable- probably for the expectation that Santorum would at some point reveal/have exposed how extreme his thinking was?

    1. Agreed. I can't see how Santorum, as the nominee, could win over the squishy middle. Just too many negatives, and the only way he could really tack was, well, more negative. Even a cursory overview of his record (and quotes) (and book) shows that. And if it is that easy to see, the Republican backfield could see that too. Not the guy to gamble on versus Obama.

  2. Here's the Michigan by-county map. Romney defeated Santorum by 32,000 votes statewide; scroll over Oakland county, northwest of Detroit and home to Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham and whatever's left of the "money" in Detroit, and you'll see that Romney won Oakland county by - you guessed it - 32,000 votes.

    I know nothing of elections, of course, but I know a bit about Michigan, having grown up on the west side of the state. I can't recall seeing the rich-poor, East-West gap in that state as strongly represented as last night. My sense is that a Republican candidate that wins Michigan with Romney's split last night is inevitably gonna get clobbered by a Democrat like Obama in the general. That's because Romney won Michigan by cleaning up with the safest tier of voters, the ones that Republicans need to worry about least in November. Can't possibly be a positive sign.

    Considering that Romney was born in Michigan, I think I disagree somewhat with your conclusion at Plum Line: you won't hear this in the MSM, but I suspect the Republican insiders realize that last night's vote distribution is just about the best confirmation yet of Romney's astonishing weakness as a general election candidate.

    1. Romeny is a stronger candidate in affluent and middle class suburbs and a weaker candidate in rural and small town areas than George W. Bush or John McCain. The fact is that Obama won Oakland County pretty comfortably in 2008 (by 96,000 votes) and Kerry won it narrowly in 2004 (by 3,000 votes). No Republican Presidential candidate since George W. Bush in 1988 has won big in the suburbs of large metro areas, and Romney potentially improves Republican fortunes in those suburbs to something close to 1988 levels (though not equaling those levels, since the non-Hispanic white percentage in the suburbs is down significantly since 1988). Even if he narrowly loses the election to Obama, Romney may improve the image of the Republican Party among upper and upper middle class voters, with long term benefits to Republican fortunes. In the long run, a viable political party needs significant support among the upper crust of American society; the Democrats have the legal, academic, and media elites, for the most part, and Republicans need to solidify their support among the business elite. A party cannot effectively govern the USA as a pure white middle class populist party, and the Palins and Santorums would move the Republican Party too far in that direction.

    2. I meant George H.W. Bush in 1988 in the above comment, not George W. Bush, obviously.

    3. Anonymous, thanks for taking up the discussion. On a personal note, I share your vision for the Republican party, I would be very happy if it would move back to a hazy imagined previous time when benevolent businesspeople, motivated by noblesse oblige, called the shots. I won't expand, in hopes that my liberal friends here won't disabuse my sepia-toned memories of a golden past...

      To Michigan, though, and what it means: your point is well-taken, that more rich people voting Romney in suburban Detroit might help. We should disregard 2008, since McCain/Palin famously didn't try in Michigan. For curiosity, I downloaded the by-county results from 2004, in which Kerry beat Bush relatively handily in Michigan, 52-48.

      There were 18 counties in Michigan that went 60% or more to Bush in 2004. Of those 18 counties, Romney picked up 6 last night, Santorum 12. Somewhat contrary to my post above, a 60%-Republican county is "easy", but while Oakland county overall doesn't vote Republican, the rich folks in the rich suburbs are easily Republican, with their influence more noticeable in a primary.

      In any event, when you have a key swing state, where your ostensible candidate is a native son, and he loses "your" counties 54%-46% to Rick Freaking Santorum...

      ...I think you're probably terrified of Obama at that point.

    4. > I would be very happy if it would move back
      > to a hazy imagined previous time when
      > benevolent businesspeople, motivated by
      > noblesse oblige, called the shots.

      Sounds like the Obama administration to me.

  3. Santorum is not, and never was, a viable candidate. I think JB is right on that. He suffers from one of the worst cases of foot-in-mouth disease I have ever seen in a career politician who wants to be taken seriously. I mean, talking about how the Dutch euthanize senior citizens against their will? Calling the president a 'snob' who wants American children 'indoctrinated' into a 'phony theology'? Don't even get me started on the birth control stuff. Sure, it is evidence of pandering to an ignorant base but it has the ultimate effect of alienating a lot more people than it will win over. Santorum is like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin combined...on steroids!

    Why this race isn't over, and wasn't until Florida, I think, has more to do with the large socially conservative evangelical base Santorum has been pandering to rather than any perceived weakness in Mitt Romney. The stumbling block is his Mormon faith. Evangelicals do not consider Mormons to be Christians and are very hesitant to vote for one. I think that's a narrative that has been downplayed substantially during this primary season.

    1. So how does Santorum go over in Mississippi? (I think I can guess, but my guess may . . . lack nuance.)

  4. If this GOP race were a movie, it should be called "Desperately Seeking Sarah." I think the serial mini-surges for this and then that wingnut candidate are best explained as the responses of the evangelical base to the absence of Sarah Palin. That's why Pawlenty got no traction, despite the objective advantages that JB and Jonathan Chait were pointing out last year. It's also why the first of the mini-surges went to the female candidate from a rural district, Bachmann, instead of, say, the much better-known Gingrich.

    Had Palin run, there wouldn't have been mini-surges, there would have been one big surge for her, and it might have been enough to win her the nomination, especially if she had had the sense to do what the other candidates didn't and hit Romney early and repeatedly as the intellectual godfather of Obamacare. It's impossible to be sure, though. She had serious weaknesses, including a history of lies and fabulisms that would have been subject to new scrutiny (I think this is what kept her out of the race -- thank you, Andrew Sullivan and Joe McGinnis!), plus very high unfavorables that would have terrified party elites and possibly got them to commit to Romney sooner and more decisively. But maybe not; they might have been too afraid of angering the base / Tea Party to do that. Regardless, I think we would have seen one big face-off between that crowd and the Romneyite establishment, instead of this bunch of little ones that have given Romney the advantage and divided the opposition against him.

  5. Don't be so rough on yourself, Mr. Bernstein. Political analysis is hard and uncertain, if not so hard as quantum mechanics or so uncertain as economic prediction, and you are certainly among the best (and I should add that I am neither an economist nor a quantum physicist). Everyone in every field has their victories and defeats, and you certainly have probably the best track record of most widely read political-science based commentators. How do you stack up against your competition? Mr. Chait is wonderful at broad analysis of political culture, but often stumbles when he gets into the weeds; whereas Mr. Silver is a master of data and statistics but sometimes doesn't quite get far enough from the trees to see the forest. As for Professor Dickinson and "Presidential Power," he has deep and subtle insights into the inner operations of political institutions, but his reflections on practical politics aren't always so impressive (a primary challenge from Hillary good for the Democratic party, really?). You are, I think, the most well-rounded, and generally the most accurate, of them all.

    1. Thanks!

      I don't think I'm being rough on myself; it's just part of the way to do this responsibly, or at least that's what it feels like to me.

      Plus, I'm always trying to understand this stuff better, and keeping track of what I get right and wrong is extremely helpful for that.


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