On Tuesday, the Republicans will conduct primaries in Michigan and Arizona. The Michigan race is a tossup between Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney — all polls from the state indicate a very close contest, with Romney’s numbers improving the last few days.
Arizona, on the other hand, appears likely to be won by Mitt Romney. Romney has led in every poll that has been taken in the state.
Earlier in the week, Santorum appeared to be closing the gap in Arizona, pulling within 3 or 4 points of Romney, but the latest polls show Romney pulling away with a double-digit lead. The debate on Wednesday night in Mesa, Arizona, is unlikely to have helped Santorum in Arizona or Michigan. Santorum came into the debate reeling a bit from a series of controversial statements relating to religion and social issues, made either recently or years back but that only now have come to light. In the debate, he was on the defensive most of the night, having to defend his record on earmarks, the debt ceiling, and his endorsement in 2004 of Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the hotly contested GOP Senate primary in Pennsylvania. Specter, of course, switched parties in 2009, and was one of the 60 votes for ObamaCare in the Senate that enabled the Democrats to break a GOP filibuster of the legislation.
Santorum appears to be suffering the fate of politicians who have spent too much time in Washington. Inevitably, they have long records to defend, including many votes that need to be explained that appear to be inconsistent with espoused positions on taxes, spending, and deficits. In 1996, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole seemed to be talking to D.C insiders in trying to explain his Senate voting record, rather than to the American public.
Romney, who has faced a series of challenges in his second attempt at the nomination, has already weathered the rise of Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich twice. Now Santorum has taken the lead in all the national polls, and earlier in the week he seemed a serious threat to consolidate conservative opposition to Romney as Gingrich’s support level dropped off. In essence, with only four candidates left competing for the nomination, Santorum increasingly appeared to be within reach of getting the long-sought one-on-one fight with Romney for the nomination, as he was leading in each of the last 8 national surveys against Romney.
Santorum’s numbers in head-to-head matchups with Obama either nationally or in key battleground states have also begun to match those of Romney, whose argument that he is the most electable Republican has been one of his strongest in the long GOP fight.
But Santorum may have peaked a bit too soon. As the perceived frontrunner, he is getting more scrutiny than when he toiled in obscurity visiting all of Iowa’s 99 counties in the lead-up to the caucuses in that state. While Santorum’s enthusiastic defense of traditional marriage, the family, and the pro-life movement has registered with social conservatives, it has proven to be a lightning rod among some GOP voters who would prefer to talk abut economic issues or national security issues. Every poll now shows a significant gender gap in terms of support for Santorum, suggesting he runs much weaker among women, particularly independent women.
Nate Silver, writing in the New York Times, says Romney will benefit in Arizona from the votes of Mormons, who make up a bit over 10% of the GOP electorate in the state. In 2008, when Senator John McCain won his own state of Arizona by 13% over Romney in the GOP primary, Romney won the Mormon vote by about 10 to 1 over McCain, and McCain won all other votes by about 2 to 1 over Romney. Silver says that if Mormon voters in the state go 10 to 1 for Romney again, that would give Romney a 9-point overall lead, and the two candidates are running roughly even among all other voters. Silver gives Romney a 90% chance to win the primary.
The size of a Romney win in Arizona matters less than that he finishes first. Arizona, like Florida, is a winner-take-all delegate state in the GOP nominating process. Romney would win all 29 delegates with a victory. On the other hand, even if Romney loses Michigan to Santorum, the delegates from that state are likely to be split between the two leaders, and Romney will net the most delegates from the night even with earning just a split of the two contests.