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Romney is the inevitable candidate again

Victory over Santorum in Arizona and Michigan means the Republican candidate is almost unassailable.

Ever since Rick Santorum swept three states earlier this month, the question everyone has been asking in the US is: Why don't Republicans like Mitt Romney?

Notice I didn't say why do they like Santorum. Indeed, the socially conservative former US Senator from Pennsylvania has been surging, but largely because his winning -- if only symbolically, as in Missouri, whose delegates don't count -- demonstrated a credible conservative alternative to Moderate Mitt.

Because of this, Michigan, where Detroit and its famed automotive firms are located, has been the focus of superlative speculation. Michigan is Romney's birthplace and where his father, George Romney, served as a popular car company executive as well as a respected and moderate Republican governor. If Romney couldn't win with that history, how could he win at all?

Making matters worse is Michigan's long tradition of holding open primaries, which means anyone can cast a ballot for a Republican nominee, even liberals and Democrats! That exclamation point is intended to be cheeky but it's unclear how funny "Operation Hilarity" is. That's the campaign by the Daily Kos, a liberal political website, that feared a win for Romney meant an end to circus entertainment. By voting for Santorum, the editors said, Democrats can "keep the clownshow going."

News broke on Monday that perhaps the Santorum camp is taking Kos' hilarious cue. Democrats across Michigan received robo-calls asking them to vote for Santorum. A second round of calls went out Tuesday telling voters to support Santorum because Romney opposed the Detroit bailout (which Santorum also opposed, but whatever).

Surveys showed Romney and Santorum in a dead heat, raising alarm among analysts who worried the race was so close that voting for Santorum on a lark would bring the joke of President Santorum one big scary step closer to not funny at all. And Democrats would be to blame!

They can all stop worrying now.

Romney handily won Arizona, where he crushed his opponents. Even so, all eyes were on Michigan. For a while, it was too close to call, but around 9 p.m. EST Romney started pulling away from Santorum and by about 10:30pm, NBC and the Associated Press called it in favor of Romney. Cue the sighs of relief.

With 91 per cent of the votes in Michigan counted, Romney had 41 per cent, Santorum 38 per cent, Ron Paul 12 per cent and Newt Gingrich 6.5 per cent. In Arizona, with 73 per cent of the votes counted, Romney had 47.5 per cent, Santorum 26 per cent, Gingrich 16 per cent and Paul 8.5 per cent.

And perhaps now (though I doubt it) there will be less nit-picking over Romney's bona fides. The conventional wisdom has been that working-class and evangelicals don't like Romney, so they'll likely vote for Santorum, a socially conservative Catholic. But turns out that's only half right. According to CNN, working-class voters (defined by income) were more or less split between the candidates. And given exit poll data provided by CBS News, evangelicals liked Santorum, but Michigan's Catholics went for Romney, the Latter-Day Saint.

Some say even a win in Michigan is a loss for Romney because Santorum took the shine of inevitability off him, just as Gingrich did in South Carolina. Yet a win is more often, in the real world at any rate, a win. This shifting back and forth between being portrayed as the candidate of inevitability and candidate of collapse has dogged Romney from the beginning. Every time his opponents gird their loins enough to take a nibble out of the delegate pie, critics point and shout and say Romney won't be able to eat the whole pie! In fact he doesn't have to in order to secure the nomination. But whatever, now that Romney has won again, the narrative will also return to inevitability, with South Carolina, Colorado and Minnesota remembered as only unpleasant hiccups.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.