After months of styling himself as the inevitable nominee, Mitt Romney is finally poised to live up to his own hype. Sweeping victories last night in Wisconsin, Maryland, and Washington D.C. suggest that Romney is starting to shore up his support among Republican primary voters, even as his campaign is fueled by factors that seem to have little to do with his virtues as a candidate.
The key to Romney’s victory in Wisconsin, as it has been throughout the primary season, was his massive funding advantage. Restore Our Future, Romney’s super PAC, sank some $3 million into television ads in the state; Santorum had to make due with a comparatively modest $850,000 ad buy. The advertising blitz proved decisive, helping Romney to overturn an early deficit in the polls and swinging the race in his favor in the closing days. Of the 51 percent of Wisconsin voters who made up their minds in the last week, 51 percent ended up voting for Romney. High-profile endorsements, including backing from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a favorite of Wisconsin Republicans, also helped Romney’s cause in the Badger State.
Ads and endorsements aside, there were also signs that Romney benefited from the growing perception that he will be the last man standing. In Wisconsin, early exit polls showed that an overwhelming 80 percent of voters expected Romney to become the eventual nominee, even if they didn’t support him personally. In Maryland, nearly half of primary voters believed the same. The fact that Romney is increasingly drawing more support from Santorum-friendly constituencies like Tea Party members and evangelical Christians may be another indication that Republicans are ready for the race to be over.
So too is the Obama administration. New ads launched by the president’s re-election campaign in six swing states are now targeting Romney by name, and the president is now referring to him in his speeches, a clear sign that he considers Romney his likely opponent. Romney has responded in kind. In his victory speech last night, he hit out at “Barack Obama’s government-centered society,” a possible preview of his theme in the general election. Romney is also slated to form joint fundraising committees with the Republican National Committee, a sign that he has begun to shift focus to the major battle ahead. Even as he continues his quest for the nomination, Romney has begun acting like the nominee.
For Santorum, meanwhile, things look bleak. Working-class appeal was supposed to boost Santorum’s chances in industrial states like Wisconsin and Illinois. Instead, he has lost both races and is now faced with the dismal prospect of what his own campaign strategists concede is a “make-or-break” test in his home turf of Pennsylvania. Lacking Romney’s resources, however, Santorum will face an uphill challenge to prove that his fading campaign remains competitive.
Santorum’s go-to tactic so far has been to portray Romney as an elitist, out of touch with the economic concerns of most Americans. There is of course abundant evidence for the charge, as illustrated by Romney’s numerous gaffes. His recent attempt at everyman empathy – “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners” – was almost beyond parody. And yet Santorum’s defeats in Wisconsin and Illinois suggest that he has taken this populist line about as far as it will go. The most coherent message of the GOP primary campaign is that Republicans want to defeat Barack Obama. To the extent that Romney is now viewed by many of these voters as the best candidate to accomplish that mission, Santorum’s jabs are unlikely to change his fading fortunes.
Which is not to say that Romney can rest on his laurels. As Santorum has often and accurately pointed out, the funding advantage that Romney has had in the Republican race will disappear as soon as the presidential race begins in earnest. (Though Santorum never quite explained why, having failed to prevail against Romney’s financial might, he would fare better than the former Massachusetts governor against the White House’s financial juggernaut.) As of last month, Obama had nearly $85 million in his campaign coffers, dwarfing Romney’s $7.3 million. Romney’s march to the nomination has been fraught with struggle, much of it born of his own failure to gain traction with Republican voters. But compared to what lies ahead, it is still the easy part.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.