With apologies to T.S. Eliot, February was the cruelest month for Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Republicans’ hopes of ousting President Obama.
In the tumultuous four weeks since Romney seemingly sealed the nomination in Florida, momentum in the GOP race has careened between the buttoned-up former Massachusetts governor and the voluble former senator from Pennsylvania, who displaced Newt Gingrich as Romney’s principal challenger. But even many Republicans privately agree that the past month’s one consistent winner was Obama.
Early on, many Republicans (including Romney) argued that a lengthy primary battle could strengthen the eventual nominee. Such talk has died down since Santorum’s three-state Feb. 7 sweep upended the race.
Since then, the two men’s fierce struggle has widened ideological and class divisions in the GOP coalition, highlighted each candidate’s weakness as a campaigner, and, above all, sent both hurtling away from the political center as they pursue voters in the party’s ideological vanguard. “For the past two or three weeks, this has been a very bad period for the Republican Party and swing voters,” acknowledges Peter Wehner, the former White House director of strategic initiatives for President George W. Bush.
Romney regained the advantage this week with his twin victories in Arizona and Michigan. But he didn’t win decisively enough to suggest that he can close out the contest anytime soon—or without further bumps and reversals.
Even in securing these wins, Romney continued to struggle with the most conservative elements of the GOP coalition. Voters who identified as strong tea party supporters or evangelical Christians preferred Santorum narrowly in Arizona and by double-digit margins in Michigan, where he contested Romney more vigorously. By themselves, those deeply conservative voters are not enough to propel Santorum to victory. From Iowa on, Romney has established a solid hold on the GOP’s managerial wing—voters who are better-educated, more affluent, centrist, and secular. To overcome Romney’s strength with those voters, Santorum must reach more successfully than he has so far into the party’s populist wing, the broader range of working-class Republicans who are cooler to the former governor.
But for all of Santorum’s visceral cultural and economic populism (like calling Obama a “snob” for encouraging more college education), he hasn’t shown that he can connect with those voters consistently. Although Santorum is Catholic, he has run behind Romney among Catholic voters, for instance, in every state where there have been enough of them to measure in exit polls. For now, Santorum is attracting Republicans from too narrow a bandwidth to become the nominee.
But Santorum’s coalition is big enough to allow him to continue winning states in which the Republican electorate clearly tilts right. And it is clearly large enough to exert a gravitational pull on the front-runner. Romney has responded to each challenger who has emerged to his right (Rick Perry, Gingrich, Santorum) by finding a handful of issues on which that opponent has deviated from conservative orthodoxy and then pounding those issues to drive home the argument that right-leaning voters can’t trust him.
It’s a nervy strategy for a candidate whose own greatest vulnerability is the sense, especially among conservatives, that he has systematically reconsidered his own positions for political advantage. But Romney’s maneuver has worked well enough to prevent any of those rivals from consolidating most conservative voters against him for more than a short time.
Outflanking those rivals, though, has required Romney to stake out unflinchingly conservative positions on an array of issues such as immigration that could present general-election liabilities. In just the past 10 days, he has stiffened his opposition to the automaker bailout (in the process, possibly conceding Michigan); sharply escalated his rhetoric against organized labor (which could help unions hold members who are disenchanted with Obama); and moved to preempt conservative economic criticism by unveiling a plan to cut marginal tax rates for all income-earners by 20 percent (which could be difficult to sell at a time when polls consistently show that about two-thirds of Americans support raising taxes on the rich to reduce the deficit).
Romney should also probably learn how to say “a model” in Spanish because if he wins the nomination, he’s probably going to hear the phrase (“un modelo”) incessantly in Democrats’ Spanish-language ads after he used it last week to describe Arizona’s tough anti-immigration law.
And amid all this, Romney has displayed a rich guy’s Tourette’s syndrome, fueling Democratic hopes of blue-collar gains by awkwardly babbling about his wealth. “He is taking almost all of the swing constituencies where he would need to improve on John McCain’s performance and making it much more difficult,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
None of this guarantees that Romney could not be rehabilitated for November or that Obama’s own vulnerabilities will not provide openings. (Santorum would face a far rockier path after his serial eruptions on social issues last month.) But this leap-February did not end one day too soon for Republicans who are nervously watching Romney’s favorability ratings decline with both independents and the most conservative voters. “My hope is that when we get to the general election,” sighs one senior party strategist backing Romney, “there is a reset button.”
This article appears in the March 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.