Why can’t Mitt Romney officially lock up the Republican nomination? Despite the victory of Rick Santorum in the Louisiana primary this past weekend, it now seems likely that Gov. Romney will be the Republican nominee. Last week’s substantial victory in Illinois again demonstrated that Romney is the only Republican candidate who attracts majorities in the important heartland states. His victories earlier in Florida and Ohio demonstrated that he is the candidate with the most support in these critical November battlegrounds. But he can’t close the deal. Why?
Clearly the governor has had real difficulty connecting with the most conservative Republican primary voters, especially in the South. This was demonstrated again this past weekend when Rick Santorum had a solid victory in Louisiana. However, these victories in southern states, while giving a news-cycle boost to Santorum, have little impact on the general election race. While Gov. Romney may not be winning the hearts of the hard-core conservative southern voter, these voters are not going to favor President Obama over the Republican nominee come November. What is really surprising to me is that Romney has done so poorly in the context of a weak Republican field.
Newt Gingrich carries the burden of his ugly divorces and remarriages and the number of Republicans in Congress he alienated during his tenure as speaker. In conversations I have in D.C., New York and elsewhere, I hear over and over again concern that so many of the speaker’s former colleagues refuse to support him. In the end, this inability to win support from the former colleagues he led as speaker in the House has been a defining negative to his campaign.
Ron Paul is a candidate with a near-cult following. No one, probably including the candidate himself, believes he will win; yet he continues to get enough votes to deny Romney an outright majority in any state.
Finally, there is former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has effectively emerged as the last alternative candidate to Romney. However, his lack of focus, money and staff has made his campaign less than overwhelming. Additionally, while he has won in the South, he has not been able to demonstrate electoral appeal in key electoral states. Most damaging in the eyes of most political experts is the way he lost his Senate re-election bid in 2006. Seldom has an incumbent senator been rejected by his constituents like Santorum was by the voters of Pennsylvania. He lost by a margin of 59 percent to 41 percent, one of the largest margins of defeat ever for an incumbent senator. His comments on contraception, on President Kennedy’s speech about religion, and on Obama and college education are too far to the political right and makes it unlikely he can win outside a Republican primary.
Yet, with these seriously flawed candidates Romney has not been able to become the clear winner. He still hasn’t won in a Deep South race, he has not been able to defeat the weak field with a clear 50-percent-plus majority, and despite some improvement, he has not been able to connect with middle income voters on key economic issues.
The Republican Party is fortunate to have a deep bench with most of the rising stars backing the governor, and with the endorsement of Jeb Bush Romney continues his theme of inevitability.
I don’t share the view that the 2012 Republican primary is similar to the tough battle between Clinton and Obama in 2008. I believe the issues raised by Romney’s conservative opponents have the potential to keep some key Republican constituencies’ home on Election Day. This will be the key to the next phase of the Republican nomination process, how do opponents exit, and strengthen the Romney brand. As I have stated, the hard-core conservatives won’t vote for the president, but they may stay home and hence help Obama’s efforts. The good news for Romney is that the hard-core conservatives probably hate Obama more than they don’t support Romney; but the argument that there is no difference has the potential to hurt the Republican effort. That is why for Santorum, and to a lesser extent Gingrich and Paul, the end of their campaigns may be more critical to Romney than the primary votes to date.
Tom Block is a public policy consultant who had a 21-year career with JP Morgan Chase where he served as head of government relations in D.C. and created a Washington research product. A native Kentuckian, he also created the bank’s EU Government Relations program and developed a new position as U.S. Government Policy Strategist focusing on how U.S. government policy impacts capital markets. He has an extensive government and banking background, has worked on political campaigns and as a speech writer. He is a trustee of Bernheim Aboretum in Louisville and holds a B.A. degree in political science from American University. He and his wife now make their home in Kentucky. He is a regular contributor to KyForward. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.