I grew up in New York City, and regularly traveled by subway. The various train lines had express service (e.g., from 59th Street to 125th Street in Manhattan) as well as locals, which made every stop. After Mitt Romney’s decisive victory in the Illinois primary on Tuesday, winning another big collection of delegates, the Romney campaign may have believed it was now on the fast track, the express train to the nomination.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and a favorite of those who had been pining for a deadlocked Republican convention and a new entrant to the race, endorsed Romney on Wednesday. Rush Limbaugh seemed pleased with Romney’s more vocal conservative messaging in his victory speech Tuesday night, and seemed to be signaling that he was at peace with Romney’s nomination, arguing that the conservative alternative to Romney may in fact be Romney (whatever that means).
And then came “Etch A Sketch” — an offhand comment by Romney campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom that appeared to suggest that Romney was ready to start anew for the fall campaign against Barack Obama with a different message (a fresh slate on an Etch a Sketch). Without having said as much, the instant analysis of the comment was that Fehrnstrom was in effect admitting that any perceived Romney pivot to the right to win the nomination would be reversed with a move to the center for the fall campaign. Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum seized on the stumble and immediately had Etch a Sketch kits distributed by their campaigns to reporters at campaign stops.
I am not sure why it would be shocking news that candidates who win contested races for the nomination, mainly among a political party’s most committed activist voters, might try to broaden a campaign message for a fall campaign to win over those who are not partisan to one party or another, and who might have a somewhat different agenda of issues than the party’s base. The fact of the matter is that virtually every national campaign is an attempt by the nominee to expand out from the base of the party which nominated that candidate to get to the 50% or more needed to win.
The problem for Romney is that he has been battling an image as a moderate (an inauthentic conservative) and a flip-flopper in both this campaign and his first race for the GOP nomination in 2008. So Fehrnstrom’s error may have been to say publicly what everyone expected anyway (since moving to the center for the fall campaign is politically smart) in an impolitic manner suggesting cynicism by the Romney campaign and disregard for the conservative voters he has struggled to attract in the primaries so far.
Romney wants the fall campaign to be about the economy: gas prices, energy policy, federal spending, growing annual deficits and the accumulated federal debt, ObamaCare, and tax and regulatory policy. He will not run a campaign on social issues, which are of paramount importance to a significant part of the GOP base. Evangelical Christians and other social conservatives are also very concerned about economic issues, and Romney is counting on their votes in November since his approach is far more attractive to this group than Obama’s.
As Rick Santorum has emerged as Romney’s chief rival, reporters, particularly those who are not sympathetic to any Republican (probably over 90% of the national press corps), have seen an opportunity to inject social issues into the campaign. The controversy over Obama’s contraception initiative that seemed to infringe on the rights of religious organizations appeared to have died down for a bit after an attempted compromise was offered by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. But it then erupted and became the main news story for several days after Rush Limbaugh trashed Sandra Fluke, the woman who had testified at a House hearing. Of course, Santorum himself has aided and abetted these social issue controversies by bringing up some of these issues on his own, such as the need to enforce pornography laws, or saying that John F. Kennedy’s statement during the 1960 campaign in Houston on the role of religion in public life made him want to throw up.
Though it has been Santorum who has been most closely identified with these controversies, the Democrats seized on them to declare that the Republicans had launched a “war on women.” Though the charge was nonsense, it damaged the poll standing of all the GOP candidates, including Mitt Romney, the clear frontrunner for the nomination. It is no wonder that the Romney campaign wants to pivot from these topics to the economy.
So will Etch A Sketch be a major roadblock to Romney securing the nomination? That seems very unlikely. Romney has secured about half of the delegates he needs for the nomination and about 55% of all the delegates won by any candidate to date. He seems likely to to come out ahead in winner-take-all races in California, Maryland, New Jersey, and several other states.
As he has already, Romney will lose some states along the way. Rick Santorum holds a solid lead in Louisiana, which is next up on Saturday. Santorum could win in his home state of Pennsylvania, in North Carolina, in Wisconsin, and in Texas. But the delegate math for Santorum is daunting. Romney’s big lead in the delegate race, and his likely wins in some of the winner-take-all states, as well as delegates Romney will pick up from his proportional share in states where Santorum wins, will very likely get him to the 1144 number he needs before the convention.
The bad news for Romney is that the renewed flip-flopper charge will encourage Santorum to stay in the race for a longer period of time. Newt Gingrich appears to be out of money, and more likely to depart early, especially after his dismal performance in Illinois (a fourth place finish with about 8% of the vote). If Santorum does not think he will be nominated, he might still stick around to build more of a national base for a second try at the White House in a future year (no one seems to kick the disease of running for president after just one defeat, especially on the Republican side). Or he may dislike Romney enough to want to force him to win every delegate he needs. Or he may see this as a last chance on the national stage and an opportunity to advance his values and beliefs.
In any case, the longer the race goes on, the more money Romney will need to raise to fight for every delegate to get to Tampa with enough in hand. And that will detract from his ability to pivot in the next few months and aim all his fire and resources at Barack Obama. The media wants the race to continue, and so does the president. Rick Santorum will determine how long it goes on.