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.
Arizona is an insurance policy for Romney in case Santorum beats him in Michigan. Romney is the son of the former three-time governor of Michigan, George Romney, and grew up there. A loss, if Michigan were the only battle on Tuesday night, would be embarrassing. But if Romney loses narrowly in Michigan, and wins decisively in Arizona, the split result would dull any momentum Santorum needs to carry over to Super Tuesday the following week.
On the other hand, if Romney ekes out a win in Michigan, which would not be a great surprise (Silver rates the race close to 50-50), he could have two wins and momentum going into Super Tuesday. Romney has had the appearance of momentum before — after what seemed to be an 8-vote win in Iowa, a decisive win in New Hampshire, a huge win over Gingrich in Florida, and then a solid win in Nevada. Each time Romney has appeared to be in range of closing out the race he has been thrown back — first by Gingrich in South Carolina and then by Santorum in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri.
Romney’s problems run deeper than a possible loss in Michigan. In Thursday’s Rasmussen survey, he trails Obama by 7 points in a head-to-head matchup, and his numbers have deteriorated over the last month. These are blowout numbers on the national level. McCain lost the popular vote to Obama by 7.2% in 2008, and won only 173 Electoral College votes. Rasmussen’s tracking of Santorum versus Obama is only a bit better.
There is growing evidence that the GOP fight has alienated voters, including many independents, and swung the race decisively towards Barack Obama. As the economy shows signs of life, Obama’s greatest vulnerability in his re-election run becomes smaller. Conservative columnist George Will thinks both Romney and Santorum would make very weak general election candidates versus Obama.
The sliding poll numbers versus Obama for all the remaining GOP contenders have continued to keep alive the possibility of a late entrant to the race, or a deadlocked convention in Tampa in August, with a new nominee emerging (take your pick — Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Bob McDonnell). Karl Rove says this is fantasy.
Ann Coulter, long a mainstay of the right, has made a strong case for Romney and pointed out the hypocrisy of talk radio hosts who backed him in 2008 versus Giuliani, McCain, and Huckabee, but have bashed him this year as an impure conservative. Among evangelical Christians, there is some evidence of bigotry towards Romney for his Mormon religion.
In any case, even if Romney sweeps both Michigan and Arizona on Tuesday, the nominating fight is likely to continue for some time. Romney and his superPAC backers will need to reload financially for him to maintain his spending advantage, which was very helpful in weakening Gingrich in Iowa and Florida. More important, Romney will need to make a far better case for why voters should support him against Obama.
Beating Gingrich and Santorum is one thing. Beating Obama is a far higher hurdle.