One thing is clear after last night’s primaries: nothing is clear.
Mitt Romney won both Michigan and Arizona. His win in Arizona was convincing: he picked up 47% of the vote to Rick Santorum’s 27% and Newt Gingrich’s 16%, meaning that he one again beat both of them combined. His win in Michigan was far less so: he won by a 41%-38% margin, with Ron Paul picking up a surprising 12% of the vote. Romney’s victory speech was humble enough to acknowledge that he should have won by more in Michigan. “We didn’t win by a lot,” he said, “but we won by enough.”
But did he? Santorum leads in many of the Super Tuesday states; if he were on the ballot in Virginia, he’d likely be leading there too (whoever blew that one should surely be fired). Santorum showed tremendous strength among “very conservative” voters – a 15% edge over Romney – and another 40% edge among conservatives who wanted a “true conservative.” Santorum also got a huge number of Democrats who crossed party lines to vote for him, presumably to make this race longer and more complex.
Romney’s biggest win, once again, was the electability crowd. And, surprisingly, Santorum didn’t draw the Catholic vote, which Romney won handily, 43%-37%.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a national candidate with tepid support, and two regional candidates with somewhat enthusiastic support. Say what you will about Romney – and there’s a lot to say about him – he’s won primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, Arizona, Michigan, and Maine. That’s a pretty good cross-section of the country. Newt Gingrich’s support has been relegated to the South. And Santorum’s support is mainly Midwestern in orientation.
Romney is still in the driver’s seat – and, as I’ve written, he should walk away with the nomination based on the primary system. But he has significant flaws in the general election, particularly among blue collar workers. Whomever he selects as his running mate will have to appeal to those crowds, given Romney’s penchant for speaking like a supremely wealthy person (which he is).
As for Santorum, he will have difficulty making up ground. He’s not likely to win enough states by enough delegates to make it truly competitive, especially if Newt Gingrich continues to draw Southern support (which he likely will in places like Georgia). Were Santorum the only anti-Romney on the ballot, it’s still unclear that he’d win the nomination – the more people see of him, the less they seem to like him. He’s now been given two golden opportunities to follow up on victories, and he’s lost both of them.
So the Romney Inevitability Campaign is back on. But because Michigan was so close, he’ll have to fight for that nomination all the way to the convention – and, perhaps, beyond, if we truly get a brokered convention. Each and every week, that possibility is becoming slightly less slim.