It’s pretty clear that Mitt Romney cleaned Newt Gingrich’s clock in Florida the other day. In the exit polls, Romney swept all categories: women, Hispanics, Tea Party supporters, young people, old people, everyone except Florida’s most conservative voters (who nonetheless gave Romney 30 percent of their votes). It was the kind of win he’d been angling for since he first got into the presidential race, a decisive blow that was supposed to dash the hopes of anyone trying to keep up with him. But will it?
No White Knights
The narrative coming out of Florida is that Romney reversed his disastrous loss in South Carolina and found his voice in Florida. It’s not exactly the full-throated clarion call to arms the Republican faithful were waiting for. After ten days of mudslinging in the political lowlands, neither Romney or Gingrich will ever be mistaken for a Republican white knight. But Romney showed he knows how to conduct a good knife fight––his campaign outspent Gingrich’s $15 million to $3 million on TV ads, 92 percent of which were negative––while at the same time crooning to the little old ladies in The Villages.
The Romney that emerges from Florida is smarter, tougher and more confident that the one who went in. He’s regained that fragile, but essential aura of a man with momentum behind him. The burden now falls on his handlers to spin that momentum into a general presumption that he will be the Republican candidate––at a time when the race itself is moving into a month long political Dead Zone.
Spinning without Yarn
Yes, there are caucuses coming up shortly in Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota, but the next primaries (in Arizona and Michigan) are not until February 28; and the March 6 Super Tuesday where Romney can really flex his political muscle in 10 state contests at once is more than a month away.
Romney’s minions, as a result, will be spinning without much yarn to work with. And they won’t be the only ones out there. Gingrich gave no hint in his election night speech that he’s letting up, especially in the media spin arena where, as he has shown, he’s very quotable. Romney’s other two opponents, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, meanwhile, are hoping to get back into the race via the small state caucuses. Paul has been plotting for months to surprise Romney in Nevada and Maine. Santorum has set his sights on Minnesota and Colorado. The prospects of either winning a caucus state outright are slim, but in a race where every delegate counts, both hope proportional voting will allow them to amass enough delegates to have a voice at the convention in writing the platform and choosing the nominee.
Stacking Up Wins
For the Romney forces, February isn’t about collecting delegates, it’s about stacking up “wins.” That should be easy enough in Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Minnesota, even if Paul or Santorum finish a strong second. But it won’t significantly alter the current delegate standings. After Florida, the horse race numbers are: Romney, 69, Gingrich, 23, Santorum, 13, and Paul, 3 — with 46 states (95 percent of the country) left to vote and 1,144 delegates needed to win.
The trick for Romney is to turn these minor victories into what the media will perceive as a winning streak. Two in a row, three in a row, five in a row. Every small victory will be sold to the press as another sign of Romney’s invincibility. And if Romney can go into Super Tuesday with a 7-0 record, maybe the voters will buy it.
The trick for everyone else is to put a chink or two in that streak, all the while reminding voters that the longer the race goes on with four candidates splitting the Republican vote, the less likely it is that Romney will go into the Republican convention in Tampa next August with a majority of delegates in his corner.
Momentum vs. Math
The political press corps will be the arbiter of who is winning this spin war. Within its ranks, there’s a clear divide between the momentum-ists and the delegate counters, and strong advocates on both sides.
Roger Simon, the columnist from Politico, points out that momentum is a powerful force in presidential races. Momentum brings money into the campaign coffers, and attracts endorsements from people who want to be on the winner’s bandwagon. And it all starts by showing you know how to win. It doesn’t matter whether you sweep to victory or luck into it, whether you win on principle or win ugly. Getting a “win”––even in a small state like New Hampshire with only 12 delegates–– demonstrates you have the organization, strategy and money to compete on the presidential level. If a candidate tallies up enough wins, he proves that he has what it takes to be a winner, and that is who party conventions like to nominate: winners.
In the 1996, 2000 and 2004 presidential primaries, momentum explained the process all the successful candidates went through to became nominees. But the epic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 threw the momentum-ists a curve. Early voting states gave wins to both candidates so reporters went into Super Tuesday looking for one candidate to dominate. When Hillary Clinton won most of the states, her strategists claimed the momentum was on her side. Then Obama’s advisors noted that their candidate nonetheless had tallied up more delegates. From that point forward, delegate counting ruled the roost and the race went down to the final primaries in Montana and Puerto Rico on June 1. (And even then, it wasn’t over. It took a party rules committee vote affirming the primary results in Florida and Michigan to convince Clinton to concede.)
The Dream of a Brokered Convention
There is an element of the press corps that relishes a long drawn out primary schedule with its enticing prospect of a brokered convention at the end. But it almost never happens. The last convention that fit that description came in 1952, when Democrats nominated Adlai Stevenson on the third ballot only to see him lose to Dwight Eisenhower. The last time Republicans were in the same boat was 1948 when Thomas Dewey won the nomination on the third ballot (and lost to Harry Truman).
The reality of raising money to wage a long primary battle forces underfunded candidates to drop out; and rambunctious rebels who don’t withdraw graciously are often talked into stepping aside by party leaders who, under modern convention rules, have their own power base as convention super delegates.
That doesn’t mean losing candidates haven’t taken their fight to the convention floor. The Republican convention of 1964 and Democratic conventions in 1972, 1980 and 1992 were bitter battles between rival party factions. In many cases, the ill will they generated took the eventual nominee down. Realizing this, party officials have worked to tone down convention proceedings so they have become little more than a primetime showcase for the nominee.
There are a lot of good why Romney’s momentum should hold up through February, and straight through into the convention. On the money front, he has $20 million in cash on hand (versus Gingrich’s $600,000). His organization has thought through the selection process and put in place field organizations in the states that will make a difference. And in Florida, he found a way to deliver a stump speech that doesn’t sound like a panel discussion at Davos.
If he can just keep those wins coming in February, his expected victory in Michigan could be the springboard to half a dozen more victories on Super Tuesday.
But let’s say Gingrich holds on, and uses February to restock his campaign coffers. And let’s say Ron Paul surprises Romney with a victory in Nevada or Maine, or Rick Santorum bounces back in Colorado and Minnesota. And let’s say the press this year decides to become delegate counters.
The primary to watch on February 28 will then be Arizona, a freaky bastion of conservatism that sacrificed half its delegates to the convention in order to hold its primary ahead of Super Tuesday. Sure Romney will take Michigan, but that’s a proportional voting state. Arizona is winner-take-all.
If Gingrich can make a comeback in Arizona, his victory would overshadow Michigan and he would walk away with all 29 delegates and a good shot at winning his native Georgia a week later.
That’s the kind of double bump Gingrich needs to carry on his crusade. Delegates and momentum. It doesn’t get better than that.