For those who follow presidential politics Tuesday night a new twist in the saga that is the GOP presidential nomination occurred. Mitt Romney, expected to win the CO Caucus easily was upset by Rick Santorum 40%-35%. In the beauty contest that is the Missouri Straw Poll he lost 55%-25%. And in MN Santorum crushed all the competition with close to 60% while Romney finished third at 17%. Gingrich and Paul were basically irrelevant in the night’s results.
Because of the way delegates were awarded the actual damage to the Romney campaign was minimal. MO does not actually award delegates until its primary in March. Minnesota’s delegates are considered unpledged until the Convention. CO was the only state that gave out delegates (through proportional vote totals and winners of CD’s). And in that Romney got at least some of the 33 delegates the state had to award.
Romney’s string of losses that night followed huge victories in NV and Florida. In those states Romney did well with the very groups he had struggled with in the first three contests. But Santorum’s victories continue to suggest that there is great unease in conservative circles about Romney. Just look at the county results. Romney won Northwestern Colorado, full of Mormons. Romney also won the urban counties of Jefferson and Denver as well as the surrounding suburbs of Boulder, Douglas, Arapahoe and Broomfield. Bu beyond that Romney did not win a single county.
The counties Romney lost are full of conservative, rural Republicans. The very voters who continue to have doubts about his ideology and record. Other factors could also have contributed to Romney’s loss in the state. Like in MN and MO Romney spent very few resources in the state (sorry Bob Beckel, Romney did little to win the state). Meanwhile, Santorum visited the state 22 times to Romney’s two. Perhaps voters felt slighted by Romney’s taking for granted a win in the state. Republicans in the state could also have practiced, as they did in South Carolina, that just because Romney is the frontrunner does not mean he does not have to earn the party’s nod.
Whatever the reason Tuesday night’s results, especially in Colorado, were a stark reminder that Romney still has major work to do to win the nomination. Colorado was a state in 2008 he won with 61% of the vote. Even keeping in mind in 2008 Romney was considered the conservative and McCain was the moderate losing 26% of the vote from the last contest is pretty bad. It would be nice if somebody would tell the media to calm down about it however.
From the night’s coverage on CNN and Fox you would have thought Romney had just lost the nomination. Well news-flash, he has not.
Romney’s campaign, so focused on Gingrich, may have written off Santorum. But the night’s results show they cannot afford to. They need to find an effective message to combat the former Senator. So far it seems all they have is that he is a DC insider. That attack will resonate with Romney supporters but he needs to branch out and get the evangelicals, younger, rural and lower income conservatives he has thus far failed to hold from state to state.
The only good news from Tuesday night’s results for the Romney campaign were that no state votes again until the 28th. And those states, AZ and MI, are both primaries and are heavily leaning towards Romney. Romney’s family has a history in MI (his dad was a former Governor) and AZ has an even larger Mormon population than CO.
Lower turnout affairs such as Caucuses have not been kind to Romney. He is batting 0-3 in Caucus states. But since both AZ and MI are primaries he can maximize turnout and thus his support. Also due to the lack of contests up to the 28th Romney can prep for the debate on the 22nd, perhaps finding new attacks against Santorum. Furthermore, Romney can hit Santorum hard on the airwaves and TV in MI and AZ leading up to the primaries.
One question must be asked however. When will Romney provide an optimistic vision for the party and the country? Gingrich never did and look where he is. Paul’s vision is not Republican nor for that matter conservative. Santorum’s message is just taking shape and seems to starting to resonate with religious and rural voters. Romney’s message resonates with the very voters he will need to win swing states in the general election. But it so far has failed to capture the hearts and minds of the GOP base to lock up the nomination. For Romney, finding the right message might determine whether he is the nominee of a united GOP or a divided party.