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Mitt Romney won yesterday’s two primaries in Arizona and Michigan, but he didn’t win by enough to (re)establish a sense of inevitability around his candidacy. He has been the favourite for so long that everything but decisive victories ends up being framed as a bit of a disappointment.

Here is Whit Ayres, a Republican political operative, speaking to the Washington Post a few days before this week’s primaries—“if [Romney] wins Michigan by double digits, especially if combined with a double-digit Arizona win, then all the chatter will die down just like it did after Florida.”

But Romney didn’t win Michigan by double-digits, and the chatter hasn’t died down. Though Santorum lost both states, no one seems to really hold it against him.

Some part of this surely is about political journalists and rival candidates with a vested interest in keeping the “chatter” alive, but a larger part of it is arguably about the demonstrable and enduring unease with which many Republicans  regard Romney. He continues to win by pluralities rather than majorities (47.3% in Arizona, 41.1% in Michigan), keeping alive the “what-if” question: what if someone managed to rally the “not-Romney” vote?

It is not clear that the not-Romney vote is coalescing behind a single candidate. But the votes are there and many people are on the prowl for an alternative to Romney. A succession of revolving candidates have been cast for the role already–Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, and now Rick Santorum. But the role isn’t necessarily Santorum’s to keep. Gingrich effectively didn’t content Arizona and Michigan, focusing instead on campaigning in the South, hoping for success on Super Tuesday. It is too early to write him off, and at the very least he will continue to siphon off a considerable number of votes, undermining Santorum’s challenge to Romney.

Romney has been the only constant in the primary, and he remains the favourite to capture the nomination, though at this point it is unlikely he’ll have it locked up anytime soon. Many people are still making up and changing the minds, so polls are tricky, but at this point, Real Clear Politics has Santorum ahead in Ohio and Gingrich ahead in Georgia, two of the most important states to vote on March 6. So get ready for some March madness, because this thing will go on for a while.

Moving towards Super Tuesday, Romney’s strategy is clear—focus on the economy when he makes his own pitch, leave it to his Super PAC “Restore our Future” to spend millions hammering Santorum and Gingrich with negative advertising while his various elite backers brief against them as unstable, not serious, unelectable etc, and count on his organizational strength to swing things his way. He is, as Amy Gardner writes in the Washington Post,

relying heavily on the methods that have served him well in past wins: a well-organized and well-financed ground operation, a heavy emphasis on early-voting recruitment, a growing list of endorsements, including from both establishment and tea-party leaders, and millions of dollars in TV advertisements.

Santorum and Gingrich are both making versions of the same basic pitch as they fight back—the message is that Romney is a closet liberal and a flip-flopper willing to say anything to win, the implication is “don’t trust him.” The suggestion is clear: vote for me instead, I’m a real conservative and I speak my mind and stick to my guns. For both of them things are complicated by the other’s presence and unwillingness to withdraw. Also, while both of them have enjoyed periodic fundraising boosts off debate performances or unexpected wins, they continue to be at a financial disadvantage (Romney and his allies outspent Santorum and his allies by about 2-1 in Michigan and by 12-1 in Arizona). With less money and less developed campaign organizations, they are more reliant on help from their respective Super PACs and outside backers (most notably Foster S. Friess for Santorum and Sheldon Adelson for Gingrich) than Romney is.

(Then there is “the third man” facing Romney, Ron Paul, who is plugging away in his own inimitable style. I’m dying for more inside intel on his campaign, its operations, resources, technologies, it seems like a bit of a libertarian counterpart to Howard Dean in 2004, an innovative campaign that may not win but could shape how politics is done by many others. The New York Times reports that Paul’s campaign is focusing on the caucus states, where the rules of the game means that even modest support can be translated into a significant number of delegates for the convention is a campaign plays its cards right.)

What does the prospect of a drawn-out nomination fight amongst the Republicans mean?

First of all, most commetators argue it helps Barack Obama because whoever emerges as his challenger will (a) have had to throw some red meat to a conservative Republican base out of sync with most Americans, stuff that can be turned against him in the general election and (b) have had to endure relentless negative advertising by his rivals, highlighting his each and every flaw, giving plenty of ammunition for Democrats to make their case in the fall.

Second, there is the question of whether we risk a “politics of tedium” where people get fed up with the protracted fight and some lose interest before the general election. The 2008 primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton arguably served to energize much of the Democratic Party’s base and helped Obama built the campaign he led into the general election. It is less clear that the 2012 Republican Primaries will provide the eventual nominee with the same organizational and activist momentum–look at the turnout so far, for example, which is not particularly impressive. A couple of states have had higher turnout in the 2012 Republican Primaries than they had in 2008, but most have about the same or even less–not impressive, considering that this race is much more open and closely fought and that the number of registered voters has grown since last time.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to rasmuskleisnielsen.net)



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