Super Tuesday came and went, only it wasn’t quite so super. If anything, the results only served to muddle the outcome further in what was an already muddled Republican primary. If you listen to the MSM, Mitt Romney solidified his role as front-runner after expanding his lead in delegates.
Ah, if only it were so simple. But nothing about this primary season has been simple. The principle reason for quagmire is that the Republicans decided this year to change things up and award delegates proportionally, but left it to the individual states to decide how the apportionment would work. State party bosses, being state party bosses, largely decided that the popular votes wouldn’t matter and state political conventions would ultimately decide how many delegates each candidate would receive. Craziest of all these is Missouri, which held a non-binding primary last month and will hold non-binding caucuses next week. It’s a system only Boss Hogg would appreciate.
The net result of all this inside horse-trading (aside from having only a relative few delegates actually apportioned) is the current morass. If, as in the ancient past (read: 2008) delegates were awarded on a winner take all basis, Romney would have commitments from 513 delegates, Rick Santorum 197 and Newt Gingrich 101. Instead, we have estimated delegate counts. Depending on the source, Romney has between 379 (CBS News’ count) and 430 (Fox News) delegates. My own personal count gives Romney 386 delegates. Regardless of which count you take, there are only two I’ve seen that give the front-runner more than 50% of the delegates contested thus far.
And that brings us to the current problem for the GOP. It is becoming increasingly possible that they will arrive at their convention without a candidate who has amassed 50% of the delegates needed to secure the nomination. Not necessarily probable, but possible. After all, there are three winner-take-all states (New York, California and New Jersey) that profile favorably for Romney and they combine for 317 delegates. If combined with his current total, that would mean he would need to win about 40% of the remaining delegates in the other states not yet voted, in order to reach the 1,144 required. It should be a doable task for establishment’s preferred choice.
Only, therein lies the problem for Romney and the establishment. They want the primary season over so they can focus on the general election. New Jersey doesn’t vote until June 5th – and if Romney hasn’t secured the nomination by then, it will mean enough of the party isn’t supporting the eventual nominee to signal significant weakness to the nation. A comparison can be drawn to 1948, the year Harry Truman became the original “comeback kid” (sorry, Bill Clinton). By all normal election standards, Truman should have been walloped that year: unemployment was rising, the economy faltering, the Soviets detonated their first atomic weapon and Winston Churchill’s infamous “Iron Curtain” was now a reality Americans faced with fear and trepidation. But the Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey, was about as inspiring as dry toast and succeeded in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Not unlike Romney, Dewey was perceived by many fellow Republicans as aloof and calculating – a politician’s politician. Also not unlike Romney, Dewey was disliked by the conservative wing of his party (who preferred Ohio Senator Robert Taft). The intra-party fight lasted into the convention, where it took three ballots to nominate Dewey.
Some 64 years later, the Republican Party seems to be repeating history. Certainly, the political calendar isn’t favorable to Romney. What he needs is a convincing win outside of New England to demonstrate he can bring the party together and he seems to be pouring money into Kansas, in the hope he can get it there. But after Kansas comes Alabama, Mississippi and Missouri, three states that do not favor Romney. Since it’s also highly likely that Santorum and Gingrich will split the lion’s share of delegates from these four states, one or both will probably close the gap with the Romney. The GOP nightmare scenario gets that much closer at that point. If the voting holds as it has thus far, with southern and evangelical voters opting for anyone but Romney, the current front-runner can’t cross the 1,144 threshold before New Jersey’s June 5th primary.
But there are two other pitfalls Romney will need to avoid if he wants to secure the nomination, even at that late date. First, he’ll need to ensure that those party conventions are stoked to vote for him (far from a sure thing at this point). Second, he needs to wrap up as many of the uncommitted delegates as possible. There are currently 93 of them; current projections indicate there may be as many 255 by the convention. That will be a powerful voting bloc, one as capable of tying up the 2012 Republican Convention as those of Earl Warren (yes, the man who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and Harold Stassen in 1948.
So, Romney still seems best positioned to become the Republican nominee. But party fratricide seems even more certain to deliver him as weak and badly wounded nominee. In 1948, the Republicans thought they could take on an unpopular incumbent presiding over a moribund economy and uncertainty on the world stage with an unpopular candidate and win. Will 2012 prove to be a repeat of that disastrous strategy?