Tuesday’s primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and D.C. were a clean sweep for Mitt Romney, who also won 86 of the 95 pledged delegates at stake in the three states.
According to everybody’s estimates (other than those of the Santorum campaign), Romney is now well over half-way to the goal of the 1144 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination. An especially credible estimate made by Ryan Lizza, Josh Putnam and Andrew Prokop for The New Yorker even before Tuesday’s votes were counted showed Romney as certain to get very close to the magic number at the end of the contested primaries, needing only a tiny sliver of the unpledged delegates to get over the top. At worst, Mitt’s in the situation Barack Obama faced late in the 2008 Democratic contest, when the only scenario that could have prevented his nomination was an unlikely and almost unanimous revolt among unpledged super-delegates. But any such comparison suggests that Rick Santorum could have Hillary Clinton’s staying power and ability to win heavily in late primaries, and that’s more than a stretch.
From a more practical perspective, the question going into the April 2 primaries was whether Santorum could somehow survive until May, when a string of southern and midwestern primaries could provide him with the sort of demographic landscape in which he has done well so far. But even if that happens, the June calendar represents a Romney firewall of delegate-rich primaries in New Jersey, California and Utah that now look likely to officially put the front-runner over the top–that is, even if Santorum fights on to the bitter end.
More immediately, speculation is centering on the April 24 primary in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania. The trajectory in polling of the state is very similar to what we saw in Wisconsin, with a steady Santorum lead beginning to evaporate as Romney trotted out conservative opinion-leader endorsements and dominated paid advertising. Today PPP published the first survey showing Romney actually pulling into the lead in Pennsylvania, with a 42/37 lead, but the trend lines are reasonably clear. The question is whether the hiatus in primaries between now and April 24 gives Santorum the opportunity to play off expectations and score an “upset” by winning his own state, or just adds to the factors pointing to a crushing Romney win there (which, in conjunction with sure victories the same day in New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, would make the pressure on Santorum to fold his campaign before the oasis of May primaries very intense).
But although Romney’s fortunes in the candidate race look very bright, the Wisconsin results showed he still has significant work to do in winning the affections of conservative voters. According to the exit polls, he still lost evangelicals, regular church-goers, and rural voters in Wisconsin, though he did run even with Santorum among “very conservative” voters. More interesting, 23% of Wisconsin primary voters deemed Santorum “not conservative enough,” which showed the success of Team Romney in raising doubts about Santorum’s record in Congress, but doesn’t indicate more than strictly relative satisfaction with Mitt himself (whom 44% of Wisconsin voters described as “not conservative enough”). To some extent, you could say that some “movement conservatives” are keeping pressure on Mitt to move right and stay right by voting for or otherwise encouraging Santorum, while others accomplish the same purpose by joining his camp. Either way, for all the talk of Romney’s impending or already-underway “pivot” to a general election strategy and message, it will be a while before he can safely ignore his right flank, and the Etch-a-Sketch gaffe will ensure any such pivot gets a lot of unfriendly attention.
Within this broader context, Romney’s suddenly strong identification with Rep. Paul Ryan and his controversial budget proposal makes more sense than it might otherwise. Ryan was a tangible asset for Romney in Wisconsin; is very popular among conservative opinion-leaders; and provides the putative nominee a way, however risky it might be, to compare himself favorably with the president in terms of the specificity of his fiscal policies. Indeed, as was demonstrated by the back-to-back Obama and Romney appearances before the Association of Newspaper Editors in Washington this week, both candidates are promoting the Ryan budget as a valid indicator of the choices the electorate will face in November. You could even make the argument that movement conservatives have indeed succeeded in their longstanding effort to nominate a “conservative alternative to Mitt Romney”—in the latest version of Mitt Romney.
Photo Credit: DaveLawrence8