Mitt Romney shrugged off his defeats by Rick Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama on March 13, where he came in third behind Newt Gingrich in both contests, by describing them as “away games”. At more than $2 million, his super-PAC, Restore Our Future, had outspent those supporting the other candidates by $4 to $1, concentrating on the negative advertising that has worked so demonstrably well in this campaign already. Nonetheless, he lost badly in the Deep South. Since he remains the favourite to win the Republican nomination in Tampa in August, the question must be: will the general election be an “away game” for him too?
Until quite late on the evening of March 13, Romney strategists were still believing their exit polling data rather than that of CNN and Fox News, and were expecting their man to win Mississippi and to run Santorum close in Alabama too. They assumed that Southerners would ignore the “favoured son” status of the Georgian, Gingrich, in order to vote for someone who was a genuine contender. Yet in a way, Gingrich’s unexpectedly strong polling might work well for Romney, by keeping in the race a candidate who can’t win but who does drain away conservative voters who would otherwise have supported Santorum. Ron Paul, who was squeezed down to 5 per cent, does much the same thing, which is why the Romney camp and the Paul camp get along with each other famously, despite having nothing in common ideologically.
In Mississippi and Alabama, where over 80 per cent of Republican voters describe themselves as born again or evangelical Christians, a Mormon who has flip-flopped on abortion was never going to do as well as a devout Roman Catholic who concentrates on social issues like Santorum. Only 57 per cent of Mississippians and 58 per cent of Alabamans told pollsters the economy was the number one issue that decided how they’d cast their vote, which was another indication that Romney would have problems down there. With the two conservative candidates Santorum and Gingrich racking up 70 per cent of the vote in both states, the race is increasingly looking like one between right-wingers who put their ideological purity before electability, and the rest of the Republican party who want anyone, even the unloved Romney, who can best appeal to independents and Democrats on November 6.
Yet for all that Mississippi and Alabama undoubtedly represented a bloody nose for Romney in the headlines, it was hardly disastrous: because their delegates were awarded proportionately he still picked up 23 delegates, against Santorum’s 32 and Gingrich’s 24. For historical reasons unconnected to population size, American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Marianas each send nine delegates. Romney has won 34 of the 36, so these tiny Pacific specks have actually garnered him more delegates than Santorum’s two Deep South victories, yet with next to no coverage in the media because they were largely uncontested.
So, as radio hosts over here say when they give you the stockmarket prices, let’s do the numbers. At the time of writing, before results are in from Missouri, Puerto Rico and Illinois, Romney has 495 delegates, Santorum 234, Gingrich 142 and Paul 64. For Gingrich to get to the all-important number of 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination, therefore, he would need to win 44.4 per cent of the remaining 2,194 delegates to be elected, which considering that he is only polling in the upper twenties in his Deep South heartland makes it a virtual statistical impossibility.
So why remain in the race, considering that he is suspected of hating Romney personally (a feeling that is fully reciprocated)? It’s partly ego — anyone who runs for president of the US at all needs to have plenty of that. It’s partly not to let down those numerically-challenged supporters who genuinely believe that he can win. It’s partly because this race has already shown that weird things can happen: see the rise and fall of Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry for examples. But it’s mainly ego.
There are perfectly good reasons for even moderate Republicans to worry that Romney might not make the ideal candidate in November. His remarks such as “I like being able to fire people”, “Corporations are people too”, “For an economy to thrive … a lot of people … will suffer”, “I’m not concerned about the very poor” might be wrenched out of context, but as Enoch Powell pointed out, all quotation is out of context. A seasoned politician who has effectively been running for US president for more than eight years ought not to be still making such gaffes quite so regularly. Even assuming that these do represent his ardent belief in free-market capitalism, the campaign trail is not the right place to sound like Gordon Gekko. At a Nascar rally recently he admitted that the only people he knew in the sport were the team-owners, i.e. millionaires and billionaires.
Yet what the bloated American public sector desperately needs is precisely someone who does like to be able to fire people and understands that suffering on behalf of the many is indeed part of the solution. Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital saw him invest $260 million in ten major deals that made nearly $3 billion. The annual return to investors was an unheard-of 88 per cent. If he were able to unleash a tiny smidgeon of that kind of business genius onto America’s profit-and-loss account, and especially its balance sheet, he would become the greatest American President since Ronald Reagan. Yet the Republicans don’t yet want to unleash him on the American people, for the simple reason that they are unsure of his attraction to working-class Americans. They do like Rick Santorum personally, but worry about his electability in vital Pennsylvania, where he lost his Senate seat in 2006 by a disastrous 18 points, his outrageous comment that JFK’s speech on the separation of church and state — one of the cornerstones of the US constitution — made him “retch”, and some old remarks that the Romney campaign has dug up in which he seemed to have cast doubt on evolution.
He also seems to believe that the sex act should be reserved solely for procreation, which in a country where an estimated 98 per cent of women have at some stage in their lives used birth control must cast doubt on his electability too. It does seem strange, therefore, that in a country of over 300 million people, the choice for one of the greatest and oldest political parties in the Western world should boil down to two people with as many potential or actual negatives as Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
Something that might help Santorum over the coming weeks is the White House’s slightly deranged decision to take on the Roman Catholic Church through a federal mandate that forces employers — including Catholic churches, schools and charities — to provide contraception and sterilisation coverage under the Obamacare health law. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has charged that White House officials failed to consider the American bishops’ complaints that this clearly violated religious freedom, and although the policy is being tinkered with by the administration the underlying provisions look as if they will remain in force. This has given Santorum a superb stump line defending religious liberty from Obama’s overweaning statism, while simultaneously bringing Romney’s Achilles heel — the fact that Romneycare in Massachusetts presaged Obamacare — to the fore. (This being America, there are conspiracy theorists arguing that the Obama campaign’s communications director, the machiavellian David Axelrod, has deliberately courted the bishops’ ire in order to help Santorum beat Romney.)
Obamacare, Santorum said at a recent campaign rally, “is usurping your rights. It is creating a culture of dependency. Every single American will be dependent on government, thanks to Obamacare. There is no more important issue in this race. It magnifies all that is wrong with what the president is trying to do.” There is much to this in an economy where federal spending — i.e. not including state and city spending — has increased to 24 per cent of GDP against a postwar average of 20 per cent, even before Obamacare has begun to kick in. The president will try to focus the election on the gradually improving unemployment numbers and the risks attendant on changing horses midstream, and he’ll probably succeed. But Santorum argues that if the issues of Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, the $800 billion stimulus package (much of which now looks to have been wasted and misdirected) and the federal spending boom can be kept unwaveringly before voters — in a way that Romney can’t do due to Romneycare — then the president is eminently beatable.
With only a couple of hundred fewer delegates than Romney and over 2000 still to be elected, and Gingrich running out of his Las Vegas casino-owners’ money, Santorum believes that there’s still everything to play for, in a race that has already had no fewer than eight front-runners — if you count Donald Trump. Which I do, not least because he’s my landlord.