Despite the fact that Mitt Romney chose not to compete in Missouri and Minnesota—and spent little time in Colorado—his loss last night in all three states, to Rick Santorum, has been spun by the media as a terrible wound for the former Massachusetts governor. MSNBC’s Michael O’Brien described the results as “upsetting” to Romney’s status as the front-runner, while The Washington Post said that it would slow Romney’s march to the nomination. For The New York Times, this race was an “upset” that “raised fresh questions about Mitt Romney’s ability to corral conservative support.”
The reality, however, is that it did none of those things. This seems to go by the wayside whenever a new “anti-Romney” emerges, but it remains true that Mitt Romney has the most support within the Republican Party, the largest fundraising base, and the largest, most experienced organization. Of the candidates, he’s the most skilled at the process of running for president—which, admittedly, doesn’t say much—and he’s the most broadly acceptable to all stakeholders in the GOP.
Overall, 39 percent of Republicans support Romney, including 43 percent of those who say that they are “somewhat conservative” and 25 percent of those who say they are “very conservative.” If Rick Santorum has a chance to become the GOP nominee, I’m not sure how it happens, barring a complete meltdown from Romney.
But, you might say, the primaries aren’t even close to over, and Romney is far away from the 1,144 delegates necessary to cinch the nomination. That’s absolutely true. It’s conceivable that Romney wouldn't win enough delegates to get the nomination outright, which would make Santorum (or Ron Paul, or Newt Gingrich) an outsize player in the race.
The problem is that this contest isn’t about delegates; it’s about momentum, which itself is tied to the fundamentals of a campaign. Santorum’s near win (later win) in Iowa was a huge upset, but he wasn’t equipped to carry that momentum through New Hampshire and over to South Carolina. Romney was, in fact, on the path to victory in the Palmetto State until Gingrich trumped him with a play to the racial fears and anxieties of his audience.
Although none of the elections last night awarded delegates, there’s no doubt that Santorum will leave this week with a little wind in his sails. The only question worth asking is whether he can sustain it, and at the moment, that looks unlikely. By contrast, Romney will win another contest (or two) in February and is well placed to sweep Super Tuesday in March. Unlike his competitors, he can build on momentum, and that’s what will take him to victory.
All of this said, there is one thing you can take away from last night. The political media wants this Republican primary to be a horse race and will hype anyone who seems like a competitor to Romney, regardless of their actual viability. For that reason, the Romney campaign should want to end this as soon as possible—as long as this is a “horse race,” Romney looks vulnerable. In a general election, vulnerability isn’t an asset when you’re trying to corral a skeptical public to your side.