Why can't Romney win big?

 Mitt Romney after voting at the Beech Street Senior Center on Tuesday in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Story highlights

  • Tim Stanley: Super Tuesday hard for Romney, with modest margin of victory in crucial Ohio
  • He says it should have been easier to beat Santorum, who's had hard time in culture wars
  • He says Romney has captured mainly demographic of dwindling base: older, affluent, white
  • Stanley: If he gets GOP nod, he inherits shrunken, divided party. Can he beat Obama with that?

Super Tuesday was rough for Mitt Romney. The modest margin of his victory in Ohio was humiliating enough, especially since he outspent winner Rick Santorum 5 to 1. But the exit polls give an even bleaker reading of the night.

Even if Mitt does end up winning the nomination, he'll inherit a divided, shrunken party, one that increasingly feels like it's on the brink of swapping its policy platform for the Book of Leviticus. Romney has a lot of work to do to unite, expand and update the GOP before he stands a chance of unseating Obama.

What happened? Super Tuesday has traditionally been the front-runner's firewall, the opportunity to garner enough delegates to establish an insurmountable lead. This should have been true in 2012. Only four states out of 10 were regarded as competitive: Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Rick Santorum shouldn't have run particularly well in any of them. Besides losing Michigan and Arizona last week, Santorum's negative media coverage has suggested he's on the losing side of the new culture war: a perfect candidate for 1952, when there was still a national debate about how early your daughter should be home from a date.

Still, Romney could only manage a narrow victory in Ohio, while he lost Oklahoma, North Dakota and Tennessee handsomely. No GOP "front-runner" has done this badly at this stage in the contest since 1976. To compare, in 2000 George W. Bush took Ohio by 58% to 37%, shortly after losing the Michigan and Arizona primaries. Even Mitt's 60% to 40% victory in Virginia was pretty poor, given that his sole opponent there was Ron Paul, a Republican who leans libertarian. (Gingrich and Santorum failed to make the ballot.)

Timothy Stanley

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As for Santorum, his performance will keep him running right through March. The same goes for Newt Gingrich, who won Georgia easily and is playing a long game in delegates.

Newt says he's happy just to collect delegates and chip away at Romney's lead. He announced cheerfully that he would be launching a "March Momentum Money Bomb" on Wednesday, the next step in a candidacy that is probably actually helping Romney a little by dividing the right. His fantasy that he could be the nominee was further enabled by the fact that he's finally been granted Secret Service protection, like the big boys.

    Assuming that Romney is still the likely nominee after Super Tuesday, what has he inherited? His party is divided in a substantial, demographic way. The youngsters prefer Ron Paul. "Very conservative," low income, evangelical and independent voters lean toward Santorum. Romney's vote is largely affluent and moderate. Take Ohio, where he dominated among everyone age 65 and older, people with at least a college degree and folks earning more than $100,000 per year. If you want to understand who is actually enthusiastic about Romney, imagine Barbara Bush throwing a fundraiser on a yacht.

    Meanwhile, turnout in this year's primaries has been down by about 9%; only 5% of Republicans voted in Virginia. Primary-goers have been drawn largely from white-dominated rural areas. Take Florida. About 16% of Floridians are African-American, but only 1% of primary participants were black. It's a typically Democrat demographic, yes, but still a damning indictment of the GOP's failure to broaden its base.

    Likewise, despite the GOP's loud support for Israel, just 1% of Florida voters were Jewish (the figure is roughly 4% statewide). A remarkable 36% of primary-goers were older than 65 in a state where they account for 17.6% of the population. Romney is drawing on the dwindling base of a party that looks less and less like the rest of America.

    In contrast, President Barack Obama enjoys high ratings in the states that count. The November election is probably going to come down to Ohio; no Republican has been elected in the past century without winning there. And while Romney snatched Tuesday's state primary, Obama enjoys a hypothetical lead over him in a general election of 50% to 38%. That is helped by the fact that local unemployment is slightly lower than in the rest of the country and unionized households still account for 28% of the electorate.

    Romney's problem, argues E.J. Dionne, is that he's directing his campaign at the Republican base and not at Ohio's wider, more diverse middle class.

    The same is true nationwide. The Republican contest has been sidetracked by issues of little immediate importance to most voters: contraception, gay rights, abortion, etc. All the while that he is battling the egos of Santorum and Gingrich, Romney is not presenting a convincing alternative to Obama's leadership. The GOP primaries have become a private conversation to the exclusion of the rest of the country

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