Editor’s note: At climactic moments during Election 2012, we’ll be gathering our political bloggers for a roundtable discussion. The format is this: we’ll pose a question, one blogger will answer, and the remaining three will follow. Each blogger has a chance to be the first to answer a question. Four bloggers, four questions, sixteen answers, infinite possibilities. But first, predictions!
Ian Cheney: Arizona is called early for Romney. In Michigan he wins the popular vote, gathering 40% of the vote to Santorum’s 38%, but Santorum matches or even beats him by delegates, which are awarded proportionally by district, rather than through popular vote. The day-after story line? Santorum spins that, against money, endorsements, and all odds in a Romney state, he stood toe-to-toe in a tight result. Meanwhile, Romney stresses his popular vote win in Michigan and overall delegate win on the day.
Ben Hoffman: Mitt Romney wins big in Arizona, beating Rick Santorum by 20 points, and, with 38% of the vote, also ekes out a tight win in Michigan, followed by a victory speech with plenty of references to the great Detroit auto industry.
Stephen Kurczy: Romney wins Arizona handily. Santorum wins Michigan by a whisker over Romney, 39% to 38%.
Anthony Resnick: One constant so far in this volatile race has been that the polls have done a good job of showing who has momentum going into a particular contest; right now that looks to be Romney. He takes Michigan with 40% of the vote to Santorum’s 33% and Arizona with 45% to Santorum’s 28%.
1. Can Romney lose Michigan and still win the nomination?
Ian Cheney: Yes, absolutely. Look at the Arizona polls. Romney’s going to take all 29 delegates in the state. Even if Santorum squeaks out a plurality in Michigan, Romney will still earn a net-gain of about 25 delegates on the day. Romney will pull further away in the delegate standings and retain his recently reclaimed momentum. The idea that a Santorum win in a Romney home state would derail the Romney campaign is overblown. If Santorum took both states on Tuesday . . . that would be a triumph sufficient enough to ride momentum into Super Tuesday and topple Romney. But getting blown out in Arizona and barely winning Michigan? That’s simply not enough to compete with Romney’s superior money and organization on a national primary day.
Ben Hoffman: Mathematically, sure. Even though this election feels as though it’s been going on forever (one reason is because Romney has basically been campaigning for five straight years), this thing is far from over. Most of the delegates have not been awarded yet, and won’t be for awhile. And remember, John McCain lost 19 states in the 2008 primary. But this isn’t about delegate math. It’s about how much the Republican establishment will freak out if Mitt loses the Mitten State. Will party leaders call publicly for a “white knight” to enter the race? The most likely scenario: Romney wins Michigan, but his victory does nothing to ease the angst and doubt Republicans have about his candidacy.
Stephen Kurczy: No. Romney needs to win Michigan to win the nomination. There is no reason the Wolverine State native should lose where his own father was a popular governor. Losing Michigan would hurt his superior organization and fundraising, and show the GOP that Santorum has greater support in crucial swing states. Arizona will always swing Republican in the general election, so it really doesn’t matter that Romney wins there. But for the GOP to have a shot at winning in November, it needs to win Michigan, and that means nominating the guy who takes Michigan on Tuesday.
Anthony Resnick: I’m with Ian on this one. Romney has such a head start in terms of campaign infrastructure that it’s still easy to imagine him outlasting the field through the final 39 states, even if he takes a big hit in Michigan. The “white knight” scenario isn’t very likely unless someone announces quickly. It would be incredibly difficult to get a majority of primary voters and/or convention delegates to instantly unite behind a candidate. Even if they could, it would be a huge risk to nominate someone who isn’t battle-tested in a national campaign.The GOP might have some candidates who look better on paper than the four guys who are left, but Romney, Perry, and Pawlenty all looked great on paper before they actually ran.
2. Why hasn’t Romney fully connected already?
Ben Hoffman: Because at heart he’s a wonk, not a politician; because his hair is too perfect; because he says he likes being able to fire people; because he did used to fire people; because the primary voters he’s trying to connect to want someone crazy and he’s really bad at pretending to be crazy; because he makes $10,000 bets; because his idea of banter is telling Michiganders that their trees are the right height; because he makes John Kerry sound like Chris Rock; because he may actually be a cyborg from an unfeeling future; because—oh, screw it: because he’s Mitt Romney!
Stephen Kurczy: Dishonesty. He’s just not honest and up-front about who he is, be it his religion, his pro-choice history, his support for universal health care . . . and it all fuels the perception that he’s a chameleon, a flip-flopper, a guy who can’t be trusted to uphold conservative values.
Anthony Resnick: Ben and Stephen nailed this one. Beyond carefully-crafted policy positions and well-delivered talking points, there’s very little about Romney for anyone to like or trust. Everything about the guy just fits perfectly with the “Romneybot” caricature. Stylistically, the polished speaking style and soap opera star looks make him seem like a politician constructed in a lab. Substantively, the unartful pandering and ease with which he makes his positions fit whatever electorate he’s currently facing make it seem as if he has no core convictions. And biographically, the defining characteristics of his background—the privileged upbringing, the even greater wealth as an adult, and the Mormon faith—provide little common ground for him to connect with the majority of American voters.
Ian Cheney: Because he contracted the devastating (and henceforth eponymous) Mitt Romney Problem. I really can’t say it any better than my three colleagues have. In Mitt Romney, we have a confluence of an elite, unknowable lifestyle with a convenient, weathervane ideology. Thus, while he still had the money, experience, and friends to be the clear favorite of this election cycle, he was never able to fully connect with enough voters to make the primary a runaway.
3. When, if ever, will Gingrich drop out?
Anthony Resnick: It depends on Tuesday. If Santorum wins comfortably in Michigan and wins or is close in Arizona, we’re set with a two-man race and Gingrich will probably be out by mid-March. If Romney sweeps, we’re back where we started with Romney as the clear frontrunner and Gingrich and Santorum sticking around and hoping for another backlash. Where it really gets interesting is if Santorum barely wins Michigan and Romney wins big in Arizona. Then Gingrich has an opening: Romney is still vulnerable, Santorum is still viable but without momentum. We could go into Super Tuesday and beyond with a genuine three-person race, with each candidate having a regional base—Gingrich in the South, Santorum in the Midwest, and Romney in the Northeast and West.
Ian Cheney: Gingrich drops out when one of the other candidates has clinched, mathematically, the requisite number of delegates—1144. Until then, his goal, remember, is just to get this to the convention. Like Anthony said, the best case for Gingrich—short of him doing unpredictably well on Super Tuesday—is Romney never pulling away while the GOP remains terrified of Santorum suffering an electoral blowout a la Barry Goldwater in 1964. It’s one thing to nominate an ideologue; it’s quite another to get destroyed because you nominated him.
Ben Hoffman: When Daddy stops paying the rent. Daddy, in this case, is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who has been almost single-handedly funding Gingrich’s campaign. His most recent deposit was reportedly up to $10 million, so that ought to last Newt for at least a little while. Adelson is one of those GOPers who, as Ian notes, is terrified of Santorum getting the nomination. So as long as Santorum continues to look like a threat, Adelson will probably keep the cash flowing. But if Romney really pulls away from the field on Super Tuesday, expect Adelson to turn off the funding faucet, and that will be it for Gingrich.
Stephen Kurczy: March 6 (or March 7 depending when Super Tuesday results are clear). Newt won’t drop out sooner, because he is already campaigning in his home state of Georgia, which votes March 6. And he won’t wait longer to drop out, because Super Tuesday will only highlight his increasing irrelevance as either Romney nears the finish line or Santorum grows as the not-Romney alternative. True, even if Romney (99 current delegate votes) or Santorum (47 current delegates) sweep both Michigan and Arizona on February 28 and all 10 Super Tuesday states on March 6, that only provides an additional 539 delegate votes, meaning nobody can cross the 1,144 threshold, as Ian pointed out. There will still be 1,504 remaining delegate votes up for grabs (out of a total 2,286). But the former Speaker of the House (32 current delegate votes) is only hanging on now on the hope of clawing back on Super Tuesday, amid growing calls from Romney, Santorum, and the conservative National Review for him to pull out. Newt will suffer badly March 6, and then he will do a very un-Newt thing: gracefully bow out.
4. Did any former candidates make a mistake by dropping out earlier?
Stephen Kurczy: Yes. I’m looking at you, Tim Pawlenty. (Fat dreams, Herman Cain.) Pawlenty dropped out in August after a disappointing third place finish in the Iowa Straw poll behind Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, and we know how those candidates are fairing today. But look at whom the former Minnesota governor squarely beat: Rick Santorum, who is today leading in national polls. Pawlenty is everything that the Republican base wants from their candidate: namely, an evangelical Christian (unlike Santorum and all the remaining candidates) that is neither adulterous (Cain, Gingrich) nor moronic (Bachmann, Perry) and isn’t named Mitt Romney.
Anthony Resnick: In hindsight, it definitely looks like Pawlenty should have stuck around longer. At the time Pawlenty dropped out, it was difficult to see him ever breaking through. He was an uninspiring campaigner, and for all the respect he got from pundits for being a contender he was never able to connect in the polls. But this has turned out to be the “everybody gets their turn” primary, and if Pawlenty ever had moved to the front of the pack he would have had some staying power for all the reasons Stephen notes. In other words, over time his lack of weakness would have been more important than his lack of strength.
Ian Cheney: I couldn’t agree more about Pawlenty; he must be kicking himself. Great job by the two of you. If I had to pick another candidate, though, it’s Perry. Don’t get me wrong, his candidacy was underwhelming, but even when he dropped out, he had the second-best organization. Perry was a promising Republican figure; they wanted so badly to like him. If he figured out how to debate, he’d be a threat. If he stayed, we’d have a five-candidate primary, meaning even less of a chance that anyone earns a majority. The party, still discombobulated, could turn to the candidate that could best compete nationally with Romney and President Obama. Perry would have a chance to build steam across the many remaining southern states, peaking in delegate-rich Texas. He’d then have the momentum heading into the convention.
Ben Hoffman: Donald Trump! This election has failed to tackle important issues on which the Trumpster could have bravely shone a light, such as whether Obama’s birth certificate was really legit, and . . . okay, okay, just kidding. In reality, Stephen and Anthony hit the nail on the head with Pawlenty: for all his lack of charisma, he didn’t take anything major off the table, which in the end may be all Republican voters are looking for this year. Ian also makes an interesting case for Perry—a better case than I’ve heard anyone else make for him recently, and definitely a stronger case than Perry made for himself.