Even As He Wins, Can Romney Afford More Victories Like Ohio?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 7 2012 3:00 AM

Romney Wins Ugly—Again

The battle for the Republican nomination is now a battle between the conservative movement and pure mathematics.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looks on during a press availability after voting at the Beech Street Senior Center on March 6, 2012 in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Mitt Romney won six states on Super Tuesday, but it wasn't enough to make Rick Santorum go away

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Who says Mitt Romney isn't exciting? He's making the Republican presidential campaign really exciting. Every time he seems within reach of locking down his gains and retaking his place as the inevitable nominee, his campaign hits a rocky patch.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Romney won the Ohio primary by a prosciutto-thin margin, given that he out spent his rival Rick Santorum by 4-to-1. The victory in the most coveted Super Tuesday contest was the story of disaster narrowly averted. Santorum could tell a story of defying the odds and marvel at how far he'd come. He won three of the 10 races—with victories in Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Tennessee—and nearly claimed the big prize with a campaign operation held together by bailing wire and sturdy boards found at the roadside.

The Republican presidential campaign is now a battle between a movement and mathematics. Santorum has the energy and support of the noisy part of the party—the Tea Party stalwarts and evangelicals for whom conviction and shared values are everything. Romney's ugly win in Ohio only continues to raise doubts about the soundness of his enterprise: Is he only ahead, eking out these victories, because he has an enormous advantage in money and organization, two things he won't have against Barack Obama? 

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But let's not get carried away by the cinematic drama of the underdog story on the main stage. Romney won six states and a whole lot of delegates on Super Tuesday. What Romney has going for him is the math and that's what will ultimately determine the nominee. He leads in the delegates—more than twice as many as Santorum—and is likely to keep that lead even if his victory trophies require tweezers to hold them aloft.

Before the Michigan primary last week, Romney said he wasn't willing to light his hair on fire to win the election. But in looking at Tuesday’s exit polls, he must at least be ready to pull his hair out. Fifty-four percent of voters said the economy was the most important issue in determining their vote, and they voted for Romney by 41 percent to Santorum’s 33 percent. Forty-two percent of voters in Ohio said they wanted a candidate who could beat Barack Obama. That was the top quality they sought in a candidate. Romney won in that group 52 percent to 27 percent. Voters also said they preferred a candidate with business experience over government experience by 64 percent to 27 percent.

All of that would suggest a big Romney win, right? Nope. Voters want something else, too. In Ohio, the other half of the electorate cared about who was the true conservative, and Santorum crushed Romney 51 percent to 13 percent on that score. The 21 percent who cared about moral character likewise went for Santorum by 40 points over Romney, 60 percent to 19 percent. Ohio voters also felt like Santorum shares their concerns more than Romney, a big problem for Romney in a key bellwether state. The state has picked the president since 1964. The Republican candidate will have to beat Obama on that important economic question. That Romney can't convince members of his own party—particularly blue-collar voters he'll need in the general election—is not a good sign.  

If Romney couldn’t claim roaring support in Ohio, it was hard to do so in the other places where he notched sure victories. He won in Virginia, where Ron Paul was his only competition. In Idaho, Mormons put him over the top. Massachusetts is his hometown and Vermont its neighbor. Good for the math but not momentum. Perhaps that’s why Romney sounded more determined than elated Tuesday night. “Tomorrow we wake up and we start again. And the next day we do the same,’’ he said. “And so it will go, day by day, step by step, door to door, heart to heart. There will be good days and bad days, always long hours, and never enough time.’’

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