Mitt Romney just cannot catch a break. Less than a week after his comeback from a 12 point defeat in South Carolina to score double-digit victories against Newt Gingrich in both Florida and Nevada, Romney’s aura of inevitability and electability (his only real appeals to the hardliners that constitute the Republican primary electorate) has once again been battered. This time the setback comes in the form of Rick Santorum’s upset victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Montana.
In terms of affecting the delegate count, Santorum’s victories are basically meaningless since the primaries are non-binding with Colorado, Minnesota, and Montana allocating their delegates based on a caucus by the state Republican leadership.
However, in terms of affecting the national narrative, Santorum’s victories should not be underestimated. Romney’s weakness with the Republican electoral base stems from their belief that a Romney Administration will not have their best interests at heart. They fear Romney will govern the nation as moderately as he governed Massachusetts, adopting centrist positions on hot-button Republican issues like abortion, gay marriage, and gun control.
Romney’s unpopularity with Republican hardliners is not from a lack of effort. He has tried hard to appeal to them, adopting the most conservative position on immigration among any of the Republican contenders and endorsing a budget plan which calls for major cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. He’s even accepted an endorsement from Donald Trump.
However, these entreaties to the Republican hardliners have been unsuccessful. With the exception of his negative-advertising fueled Florida win, Romney has been unable to carry voters who consider themselves “Tea Partiers,” a group making up roughly two-thirds of the Republican primary electorate. This part of the current Republican Party has been united and energized primarily by opposition to Obama’s health care law.
Anger at Obamacare and the President who enacted it, united the elderly, affluent, and blue-collar working class – the three demographic pillars of the Republican Party. Obamacare cut Medicare (the favorite entitlement of the elderly) and raised taxes on the affluent in order to finance new benefits for the uninsured, 23 percent of them being immigrants, the bugbear of the blue-collar working class.
With “repeal Obamacare” as the litmus test for the Republican Party it is almost inconceivable that the party’s nominee would be the governor who instituted the nation’s first universal health care law.
The Republican Party of 2012 nominating Mitt Romney for President is akin to the Democratic Party of 1972, united by opposition to the War in Vietnam, nominating William Westmoreland or McGeorge Bundy.
If any of Romney’s conservative opponents were remotely plausible as Presidential material they would win the nomination in a landslide. The twist in the 2012 election is that none of Romney’s opponents are national material, as they currently consist of extreme isolationist Ron Paul, the criminalized disorganized and undisciplined Newt Gingrich, and the untenably socially conservative Rick Santorum, whose pro-life views extend so far as to include opposition to birth control.
With the Republican Party heavyweights of Jeb Bush, John Thune, and Chris Christie electing to wait until 2016, and no incumbent to run for the Presidency, Romney is left with weak opponents with no fundraising capacity and no organizational structure. For those reasons he will ultimately defeat them, but there will no unity in defeat.
Romney will be unable to inspire the Republican grassroots and will run as the standard-bearer for a bitter and disappointed party. If (really when) he loses to President Obama, the moderate Republican establishment will be dealt yet another blow, one they may not recover from.