Well, we are in a sort of primary limbo until February 28...
Santorum appears to have coalesced as the "anti-Romney" since his wins in the MN, MO, and CO earlier in the month. He is leading in national GOP polls. This is somewhat meaningless as national polls do not produce the 1,144 delegates necessary to capture the nomination, but does confirm the trend that the majority of the Republican electorate is looking to a tangible Romney alternative.
Much more relevant - Michigan polling shows Santorum with a small, but significant lead. As one of Mitt's home states a loss here would be truly crippling. Romney's main argument for the nomination has been the issue of electability in November. But losing in a state where he should cruise in coupled with national polling showing him now losing to President Obama by a 48-42 margin may well cause a massive rethink among both the GOP electorate and party elders.
How can Romney's campaign be in such serious trouble after having such an advantage on paper? He has party backing, money, a nationwide organization, and is a Washington Outsider. But evidently he still isn’t cutting the mustard.
Romney has long had the backing of the Republican Party establishment in terms of donations, organization, and endorsements. Much of this was based upon Romney spending the last several years building this base of support. In an ordinary year, the Republican Party establishment usually backs a moderate and "electable" candidate, eschewing the insurgent challenger. I would point to the McCain, Bush (both of them), and Dole nominations. I would also include the 1976 Ford nomination over Reagan in this capacity as well. Traditionally, safe candidates such as Romney have at least an even shot at winning in November. Had the economy not fallen apart in the fall of 2008, McCain would have had a shot to make it a close race. Recall the polling had him and Obama virtually tied until the markets crashed in September of that year.
Insurgent candidacies (Buchannan in 92 and 96 and Newt in 2012) are typically frowned upon by traditional Republican primary electorate. But in 2012 the establishment candidate has proven himself unable to motivate any real passion among a very passionate (in a "red meat" conservative sense) electorate. The 2012 Republican voter is certainly more conservative and committed than in previous elections and simply is not happy with Romney and his perceived heresies - healthcare reform in Massachusetts, flip-flopping on key issues, a detached and non-personal campaign style, and a failure to ignite any sense of enthusiasm.
Ronald Reagan was arguably the last national candidate to ignite real enthusiasm among the base and the resurgent Republican right wing is desperately searching for a new candidate to inspire them. So far, none of the 2012 contenders have been that candidate and ironically, this unable to coalesce has benefitted Romney up to now. With a split vote capturing a quarter to a third is enough to win over the long haul. But that split electorate may be coming to an end.
This year has been truly remarkable in that we have seen the rise and fall of Bachman, Perry, Cain, and Newt. Now it is Santorum’s turn as the last man standing. He is the real deal in terms of conservative values and philosophy. As I have said before, his stances on social issues are likely to cripple his candidacy in November. But as a primary candidate he has the advantages of being an acceptable alternative to Romney (with Newt’s apparent demise) and Santorum has presented himself well to the GOP electorate for the most part. If Gingrich leaves the race before Super Tuesday on March 6 and makes it effectively a two man race it will undoubtedly benefit Santorum.
What happens in Michigan and beyond will be the proof if he has the stuff to go the distance.
Next post - brokered convention? Unlikely, but possible...