the national interest

Republican Pillow Fight Continues

Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney take part in The Republican Presidential Debate at University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, January 23, 2012
Clash of the titans. Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Molly Ball collects a bunch of stinging quotes from Republicans about the mediocrity of Mitt Romney’s campaign. It has no real theme, it failed to anticipate Romney’s vulnerabilities with the right, and so on. I’m not totally clear, though, on how better staff work could have narrowed the vast ideological and temperamental gap between Romney and the party’s activist base.

What’s more, when assessing the competence of Romney’s campaign, you have to consider the alternative. His main opponent, Rick Santorum, routinely fails to get on the ballot. Apparently it’s happening in Pennsylvania, too. You know, the state he is from:

The problem for Santorum springs from the fact that potential delegates in Pennsylvania run on a primary ballot uncommitted to any presidential candidate — meaning voters won’t know who they’ll support at the convention this summer.

Romney, Ron Paul and even Newt Gingrich got some of their supporters on the ballot as delegate candidates. But Santorum’s campaign officials, who have struggled with ballot organization issues across the country, privately concede that they just didn’t have the time, nor resources, to organize their own supporters to run as delegates when the paperwork was due earlier this year.

At this point the delegate candidates are lined up everywhere but with Rick,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime GOP strategist supporting Gingrich.

Say what you will about the strategic limits of the Romney campaign, but they do manage to get the guy on the ballot and file the paperwork.

Romney continues to benefit as well from the fact that he faces not one disorganized, dirt-poor opponent, but two. Scott Conroy argues that Newt Gingrich’s continued candidacy actually helps Santorum. His logic, which is true as far as it goes, is that not all of Gingrich’s voters would go to Santorum. Therefore Gingrich continues to soak up delegates and help deny Romney a majority.

The weakness is that this ignores the role of perceptions. Momentum may be overrated, but it’s not nothing. The polls have swung wildly over and over. Most voters have shallow commitments, and the core of Romney’s appeal is simple inevitability. If Rick Santorum was actually winning a bunch of states, he might have a chance to actually fashion an image of being a front-runner. Instead, Romney has won a bunch of plurality victories that might have gone Santorum’s way if Gingrich was out.

It’s worth keeping all this in mind when assessing whether Romney’s near-inevitable win tells us about the Republican mentality. It’s a more meaningful indicator than, say, a Saddam Hussein 98 percent mandate election. But it’s not exactly a fair test, either. Romney is winning almost, if not fully, by default.

Republican Pillow Fight Continues