Was It Super For You?

Perhaps Nate Silver of the peerless 538 blog summed Super Tuesday up best when he said:

Super Tuesday was a long and bumpy night full of highlights and low lights for each candidate that ended in an underwhelming but basically successful outcome for Mitt Romney. In other words, it was like pretty much everything else in the Republican primaries to date.

It was a night that promised so much, but delivered little. All the talk before was of the exciting scenarios that could arise from the voting. Was Romney to land the knockout blow? Was Newt Gingrich to launch a real comeback in the South? Was Rick Santorum going to take Ohio? Was Ron Paul going to win his first state? Ultimately, the answer to all of the above was no; for the candidates, ‘Super’ Tuesday was anything but.

Mitt Romney

Of the four, Romney certainly had the best evening, winning six of the 10 states and almost half of the 419 delegates at stake. His campaign now claims that he is essentially uncatchable, and that the other candidates should stop attempting ‘to ignore the basic principles of math’ as ‘the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama’s’. On the face of it, this claim is reasonably convincing; Romney now has amassed more delegates than the rest of the candidates put together, and the longer the race goes on, the more one would favour Obama’s chances in November.

Though when one applies the ‘basic principles of math’ to Romney’s Super Tuesday performance, it appears rather less impressive. He outspent Santorum nine to one in Tennessee and 50 to one in Oklahoma, and lost both states, while finishing third behind Ron Paul in North Dakota. Romney took states that he governed (Massachusetts), neighboured (Vermont), or that has a large Mormon population (Idaho). In Virginia, he only had Ron Paul opposing him and still dropped 41% of the vote. Even in Ohio, the scene of Romney’s vital victory, Santorum didn’t even manage to get on the ballot in three districts, and still Romney only triumphed by 0.8%. He well may be the frontrunner, but his campaign is hardly inspiring. Exit polls showed that those who voted for Romney were the most likely to have reservations about their choice of candidate. He is tolerated, not loved, and this may well cost him against Obama.

Rick Santorum

Super Tuesday for Santorum is a case of ‘what might have been’. Had he taken Ohio, as he so nearly did, the whole complexion of the race would be different. The delegate tally would be much the same, but the perception of Romney as a man who can take the White House would have taken a serious hit. As it happened, he missed out on Ohio by a whisker, but took Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota.

The surprise win in Tennessee highlighted a quirk of Santorum’s campaign so far; he has been found consistently to be outdoing his polling numbers, gaining on average as much as 5% more votes than polls suggested he would. This is an interesting trend, and could be down to one of two quite different reasons: either Santorum is proving adept at sweeping up the undecided voters in the days approaching an election, in between the last polls and the actual vote; or people simply don’t want to admit they’re voting for Santorum. This is an interesting concept, linked both to the Bradley effect, in which black candidates tend to gain fewer votes than their polls suggest, and what we in Britain call the Shy Tory Factor, in which people do not want to admit that they are voting for the ‘nasty party’. It would, however, go against the usual image of Santorum supporters of strong, ideologically driven people of principle, and suggests that he holds more ‘closeted’ support than one might expect.

Another image one might have of Santorum supporters is that they would be Catholic, as he of course is. However, the exit polls tell a different story. Of the states for which detailed exit poll data was available, Santorum has only won the Catholic vote once so far, in Tennessee. In the other states, he hasn’t even got close to Romney, losing to him by more than 25% of the Catholic vote in Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada, for example.  Santorum’s problem with Catholics comes down to the fact that he is out of touch with their majority opinion. While leaders of the church may aline themselves more readily with Santorum, the majority of American Catholics agree with Barack Obama’s stance on contraception and legal recognition for gay couples. Saying that he wanted to vomit when reading John F. Kennedy’s landmark speech on the separation of church and state hardly will have helped Santorum with this demographic either, and has been described as ‘one of the lowest points of modern-day electoral politics‘. It was certainly misguided, and will lose Santorum a lot of support, both from Catholics and Independents.

Newt Gingrich

The evening started so well for Newt Gingrich, when he was announced to have won Georgia as soon as the polls closed. However, this was the sole high point in an otherwise disappointing evening for the former Speaker. He limped into fourth place in five states, finished third in three others and didn’t even manage to get on the ballot in Virginia. And yet, he still has vowed to stay in the race, telling an Alabama crowd, “for the third time, we’re going to come bouncing back. With your help by the end of next week, we could really be in a totally new race“. Santorum’s campaign has begged him to drop out and let Santorum have a ‘one-on-one shot with Romney‘.

The choice Santorum’s campaign has attempted to present to Gingrich is to stay in the race and ensure Romney’s victory, or to drop out and allow the more popular conservative to take him on. Looking at the numbers, this is a fair assessment of the situation. Using the inexact science of taking all of Gingrich’s votes and giving them to Santorum, Romney would have lost Alaska and Ohio; Tennessee and Oklahoma, victories already for Santorum, would have been landslides. With Gingrich’s votes, Santorum would also have won the crucial Michigan primary days before Super Tuesday, surely affecting voters on Tuesday.

However, Gingrich will not pull out yet, despite his hatred of Romney. He will look at a calendar of upcoming primaries and see opportunity in places like Alabama and Mississippi in the next week, and the shining light of Texas with its 155 delegates on April 3. Gingrich will still legitimately feel that he can take the nomination, but him staying in the race is aiding Romney more than anything the frontrunner’s campaign is doing.

Ron Paul

Poor Ron Paul remains the one and only candidate yet to take a state. Positive polling in libertarian Alaska resulted in a disappointing third place. He took second in North Dakota and Vermont and polled 41% in Virginia, although that is rather devalued by the fact that there were only two candidates on the ballot. He continues to talk about delegates, but he is a distant fourth in terms of delegates collected; frontrunner Romney has nine times as many as him. Of the upcoming contests, he will see only Hawaii as a possibility for the first victory Alaska should have been.

But does Paul really care about winning these votes? Perhaps his aim is not to win the nomination (I’m sure he’d like to, but sees it as unrealistic) but to have a say in the actual nominee’s platform, or, as I have written about before, to secure a vice presidential slot for his son Rand. Paul is also building up a nationwide network of supporters, especially through social media, that he may exploit for various causes on leaving office. Indeed, if Rand Paul wishes to run in 2016, his father has already done a great deal of the organisational work for him. Perhaps for Ron Paul, that is what has become important.

As the results from Super Tuesday came in, Romney told his supporters in Boston, ‘I’m not going to let you down. I’m going to get this nomination‘. It is difficult to disagree with him, but as he is likely to lose four of the next five states to vote, the question his supporters must be asking now is ‘When?’

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

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  1. So Long, Santorum « Our Friends in the West - April 12, 2012

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