It’s not over, not yet. Not after 20 debates, not after 10 states voted on Tuesday, not after millions have been spent and blood has been spilled over negative ads that have soiled the airwaves from Burlington, Iowa, to Boise, Idaho. Canadian elections are nasty, brutal and short. American elections are nasty and brutal, but not short.
The governing theory of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign was that he was the only electable candidate in the Republican field. Everything flowed from that thesis: He alone had the money required to fight off rivals in the primaries and caucuses, the moderate profile required to peel swing voters away from Barack Obama, the business experience and acumen to persuade Americans that hopelessness and joblessness were not the country’s sad 21st-century fate.
Then much changed. And by changing, much remained the same.
Here’s what changed: A U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the funding floodgates, allowing unlimited expenditures by independent groups that mustered money to mount blistering negative attacks, first against Mr. Romney and then on Mr. Romney’s behalf against others. Faced with a cacophony of voices suggesting he wasn’t conservative enough, Mr. Romney turned right. And the sense of economic hopelessness in America began to lift, permitting Mr. Obama’s prospects to lift with them.
Here’s what hasn’t changed: Mr. Romney remains the candidate Republican voters (and Democratic strategists) believe is the most likely nominee, although the prize may be tarnished and its value, against a newly reinvigorated incumbent president, may be diminished.
It’s likely that the next few weeks may be little more than shadow puppetry, providing little relief to observers, foreign and domestic, who have grown weary of the whole spectacle. Former senator Rick Santorum may win Alabama and Mississippi next week, former House speaker Newt Gingrich may continue to roar from the sidelines on the right, and Representative Ron Paul may continue his slog through the primaries without a win but with enthusiasm (and rancour against central bankers) undiminished.
But the man in the whip position remains Mr. Romney, who simply by turning up day after day, state after state, continues to build up his store of convention delegates, very likely collecting the 1,144 required for nomination in mid- to late spring.
Sometimes, presidential candidates battered by tough nomination fights emerge stronger for the battle; one example was Bill Clinton in 1992. Sometimes, however, candidates worn and weary by the struggle never recover, especially if the party is left bitter and bruised; Hubert Humphrey in 1968 was the poster child for that.
Mr. Romney’s signature trait is determination, and perhaps he will emerge from the primaries and caucuses invigorated by victory. But nothing will erase the fact that he won his two biggest triumphs by astonishingly small margins – his home state of Michigan last week by little more than three percentage points and Ohio this week by one point. Mr. Romney almost certainly can’t win in November without taking at least one, if not both, of these states.
And nothing will wipe away the fact that Mr. Romney is performing very poorly in the South. A modern Republican presidential candidate must count on a near sweep of the Old Confederacy.
It’s often said that U.S. presidential elections are won at the centre, not the extremes, of the political spectrum. This is a lesson Mr. Romney knows well, for his victory in the Massachusetts gubernatorial election in 2002 was fuelled by his image, cultivated assiduously on the stump and in television ads, as a moderate voice in a liberal state. It’s also a lesson he learned from his father, onetime chief of American Motors, a beloved governor of Michigan and a Republican grandee in the 1960s.
“Unlike the Ramblers I used to sell,” George Romney said in 1964 on the eve of the Republican debacle under Barry Goldwater, who lost 44 states, “the Republicans must have a big wheelbase and a big body.” Much has changed in the half-century since Mitt Romney’s father was a Republican leader and Ramblers roamed the roads, but what we might call the Romney Rule might still prevail.
The Republican rush to the right this winter was prompted by the notion that public impatience with Mr. Obama, with high unemployment and high budget deficits, would reward a conservative alternative to a president who could be portrayed as unambiguously liberal. That theory may still hold, but it seemed less assailable in January than it does in March.
So the candidates will fight on, perhaps for another six weeks, perhaps until the California and New Jersey primaries on June 5.
Republicans may increasingly believe they know the identity of their candidate – but neither they nor he knows the state of the economy around which the November election will be decided. Some uncertainties have been swept away, but the most important ones remain.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.