The ragged march to the 2012 GOP nomination took another turn on Tuesday when Republican primary and caucus voters in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri handed wins to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Just a week ago, Mitt Romney was basking in the glow of a big Florida win and a few days later, a win in the Nevada caucus. The political chattering class was firing up the general election machine in preparation of a Romney vs. Obama contest while writing off Newt Gingrich and barely noting the presence of Santorum. The dirty little secret the mainstream media seems to want to ignore is that the Republican electorate, or at least that portion that is showing up during the primaries and caucuses, simply does not like (or support) Mitt Romney.
The right's ambivalence toward Romney was apparent even before the voting began. The run-up to the primary season was described by one wag as a "speed dating" experience for the GOP. In the span of 6 months or so, polls variously showed everyone from Donald Trump to Michelle Bachmann leading the GOP race. A boomlet for Rick Perry quickly faded, Gingrich rose and fell (under a barrage of Romney's negative ads), even Herman Cain had his moment in the sun. Through all of this, polls showed Romney's support as steady and flat - somewhere between 18 and 25 percent, never spiking above, or dropping below, that level.
The media's narrative seemed to bake into the primary cake the idea that Romney was "inevitable," for no other reasons other than what political hacks gauge things by - money, organization and whose "turn" it is. While those explanations can be helpful, they can also be self-reinforcing even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Even if Romney's 8 vote "win" in Iowa was not ultimately overturned, little was made of the fact that Romney received fewer votes in 2012 than he did in 2008 against a weaker, and more splintered field.
Reporters underplayed Romney's performance in Iowa for two reasons: first, they knew he was likely to do well in New Hampshire and second, they did not see a "way forward" for the eventual winner of that caucus, Rick Santorum who didn't have those things that matter to the cognoscenti - money, organization or the "turn" at bat. When Romney did win New Hampshire, the mainstream media simply fell back on its conventional wisdom of inevitability, ignoring the fact that in both contests, Republican turnout was lower than 2008 (a red flag if we are to believe Republicans are as eager to remove Obama as the media wants us to believe) and that Romney's "backyard" victory was expected.
When the race turned to South Carolina, Romney's weakness with the base of the Republican party became obvious. He was trounced all over the state by Gingrich, who he had crushed before Iowa under a multi-million dollar wave of negative ads. Indeed, Gingrich's defeat of Romney was so absolute that Romney's campaign "broke the glass" and pushed the emergency button between South Carolina and Florida - carpet bombing the Sunshine State in more than $15 million in negative attack ads and aggressively attacking Gingrich in the two debates that occurred in the week before Floridians voted. The tactic worked and Romney easily won the contest.
Reporters fell back on the "firewall" idea after Florida. That no competitor to Romney could gain traction because the Governor had these "firewalls" set up where even if he lost a contest or two, another one was in the offing that he would win. Moreover, Romney's clear financial advantage was still looked to as the ultimate difference maker. Romney's win 4 days later in Nevada seemed to take care of matters, but again, there was a story going on underneath the surface that the media were not covering. Turnout in both Florida and Nevada was down, and while Romney did much better in Florida than he did in 2008, he did so at the cost of spiking his unfavorability rating, had no positive message (other than his inevitability) and seemed to rely not on personal popularity but making the other candidates appear unelectable. Short-term, that might have helped, but even if he were to win the nomination, would put him in a bad spot in a general election.
And then came last night, where Romney did not leverage his money advantage or blitz the airwaves with negative campaign ads, he got crushed. His voting total in Colorado (which he won in 2008) was down more than 32 percent and in Minnesota, a whopping 68% (he finished third, behind Santorum and Ron Paul). In Missouri, he was swamped across the state, losing every county and showing again that the conservative base simply does not support him. Even more alarming for the GOP, turnout in Minnesota was down by more than 20 percent from 2008.
Ultimately, Romney's campaign is being propped up entirely by big donor money. A candidate who has not even won the most caucuses and primaries trying to paint himself as inevitable is slowly withering on the vine. Romney is disliked by the base of the Republican party, and his wins in 2012 have been confined to a "backyard" primary in New Hampshire, a state where he could destroy his opponent on the airwaves (Florida) and relied (in part) on a large Mormon population (Nevada). Further, turnout among Republicans is down in every state except places where Romney lost (South Carolina and Colorado) and there, Romney's support was modest at best. While the media may enjoy an extended primary season if for no other reason than it makes good copy, the longer the race goes on, the more it shows that the Republican electorate simply does not like Romney and the more the establishment of the party tries to reinforce his inevitability, the more the people who actually vote in these contests reject him.