Just when you think you have a handle on the 2012 Republican Party
presidential primary race there’s another twist in the road. This time
the twist was supplied by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
Santorum’s surprise wins in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado once again
scrambled the notion that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was
on a glide path to the Republican nomination. Give Santorum some credit.
He was busy mining votes in three states overlooked by the national
media in the wake of the big early battles in Iowa, New Hampshire, South
Carolina and Florida.
After Romney’s convincing win in Florida, it seemed as if he was on that
nomination glide path at last. He followed up with another easy win in
Nevada, helped by solid support from Mormon Republican voters in the
So what happened? Did Santorum steal some victories out from under
Romney’s nose? Or did the vaunted Romney political machine hit yet
another stumble on the way to the Republican National Convention in
Tampa in August?
It was probably a bit of both, frankly. But now the Romney crowd has to
worry about the national whispers again that he cannot secure the
support of hard core conservative Republican voters. He seems to have
had a problem with this crowd all along, especially in South Carolina.
These are the same folks who turned out in good numbers for Santorum in
Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.
It seems Romney still has some work to do to allay conservative fears
that he is nothing more than an old-fashioned Republican moderate
disguised as a newly-converted conservative. Santorum’s upset wins have
re-focused attention on Romney’s problem with the conservative base vote
in the Republican Party, and it’s unclear moving forward how exactly the
former Massachusetts governor will deal with a challenge that just
doesn’t seem to go away.
Scrambled Race Heads for Super Tuesday
The next big primary contests on the calendar come at the end of the
month in Arizona and Michigan. Now Michigan is the state Romney grew up
in while his dad was involved in the auto industry, so that should give
Romney a huge advantage there. The state I’m beginning to wonder about
is Arizona, where immigration border issues and the conservative Tea
Party influence could have a major impact on the Republican race there.
Romney has staked out a tough anti-illegal immigration stance that
should help him with conservative voters for whom that is the primary
issue. But you have to wonder if conservative doubts about Romney on
issues like health care and global warming will take hold in a state
where the conservative rhetoric can get pretty tough.
Still, who emerges as Romney’s main competition in Arizona? Can Santorum
capitalize on his victories this week? Or is he too focused on social
issues to have broader appeal to those primarily concerned with
government spending or the budget deficit? And what about Newt Gingrich?
Where does he fit into this equation?
Gingrich seems to be more focused on the important Super Tuesday
contests on March 6th when several states hold primaries on the same
day, including his native Georgia and other southern states. Gingrich is
hoping a good showing in the South will keep him viable for several more
weeks with the additional hope that conservative doubts about Romney
will continue to grow.
The problem is as long as conservatives split their vote between
Gingrich and Santorum, Romney will probably appear to be the mostly
likely nominee. I say probably at this point because who knows where the
next twists and turns will come in this process.
Obama’s Improving Poll Numbers
Another worrisome development for Republicans is President Barack
Obama’s improving position in national public opinion polls. In the
latest Washington Post ABC News poll, Mr. Obama’s overall approval
rating hit 50 percent for the first time since May in the immediate
aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Fifty percent may not sound like much, but the trend is in the right
direction for a president who was mired in the mid to low 40’s for much
of the past year. In addition, the president now leads Mitt Romney in a
general election matchup among all Americans by a margin of 52 to 43
Among registered voters, that margin drops to 51 to 45 in favor of the
president. Combine these latest polls numbers and another drop in the
unemployment rate to 8.3 percent for January, and you have the makings
of at least a temporary political turnaround for the president.
Now we all know this may not last and that the economy is, at the very
least, unpredictable. But if the trend continues of adding jobs and
lowering the unemployment rate, then Mr. Obama’s approval numbers are
likely to follow.
hard enough to defeat an incumbent president even in difficult economic
times. If the public believes that the economy is improving and that the
country is headed in the right direction, it can be almost an impossible
The Obama campaign continues to hope that he can replicate what Ronald
Reagan did during his re-election test in 1984. Mr. Reagan headed into
that election the year before with a high jobless rate and low public
But as the economy improved late in 1983 and through 1984 it became
apparent the public mood had shifted and that people were more upbeat
about the future. Not only were jobs added, but people had more money to
spend and that fed the impression of an improving economy.
In the end it was too much for Mr. Reagan’s Democratic challenger,
Walter Mondale, who lost in a landslide that November.