Mitt Romney was bound to win a fair number of delegates yesterday in the 10 Super Tuesday primary states because most of these contests were proportional, but the real test was whether he won more than 50 percent of the delegates since these states represent 20 percent of the total delegate count, a not inconsiderable number. Win more than half and Romney's sclerotic campaign shows new signs of life. Win less than half and the issue of Romney's electability looms ever larger and the Republicans might as well give up on winning the presidency.
Well, Romney won 209 delegates of the 416 up for grabs. Rick Santorum won 85, Newt Gingrich 83, and Ron Paul 20, with 19 delegates still in play.
Yet -- and any Romney victory these days seems to come with qualifiers -- he appears to have beaten Santorum in the pivotal swing state of Ohio by a mere 12,000 or so votes and may have lost had the former Pennsylvania senator met ballot requirements in all districts. This despite Romney outspending him by a whopping 4-1 margin, while the former Massachusetts governor lost badly across the South.
Romney pointed to his wins in Idaho, Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia to make the case that his campaign has regained momentum, but Massachusetts and Vermont will go to President Obama in November and Santorum and Gingrich weren't on the ballot in Virginia. Nice job in super important Idaho, though.
Santorum rightly claimed that his victories in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee were further evidence that many Republicans are still looking for a conservative alternative. Gingrich claimed that his overwhelming victory in his native Georgia showed that he is back, a dubious claim at best since he remains in the race only because of the largess of a billionaire and finished third or worse in every other Super Tuesday state, while Ron Paul continued his winless streak.
As Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times put it, "Mitt Romney won the delegates, but not necessarily the argument."
While Romney took a little more than half of the delegates yesterday, he only won about 40 percent of the popular vote and 60 percent of the states, which is pretty much what he has done to date, which is to say that Super Tuesday was yet another opportunity for him to break out -- as George W. Bush did in 2000 and John McCain did in 2008 -- but he did not.
In fact, as Romney has continued to roll up victories and delegates, his overall general election standing has not improved, which arguably makes Barack Obama the biggest Super Tuesday winner. Current polls show the president winning in all of the swing states against Romney and has pulled even in Florida. He has a healthy lead in Pennsylvania and is ahead in Ohio, while his lead against the other candidates is even bigger.
Romney also cannot expect much bounce from Super Tuesday because of the closeness of his Ohio victory. Exit polls there showed that he continues to struggle with working-class voters and evangelicals. He was crushed by Santorum in Tennessee and now faces primaries in Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi where he will not do well.
"There's a lot of questioning about why Romney can't 'close the deal,' " writes David Frum, a former George W. Bush administration who was banished from the Republican temple for being too moderate. "But maybe we should equally wonder, why GOP voters refuse to understand how complex and difficult the deal is."
That, as the Aussies like to say, is it in a bit.
No one, Romney included, is going to come close to beating Obama by continuing to relentlessly characterize the man who took out Osama bin Laden and much of the Al Qaeda cadres as being "weak" on foreign policy and not providing concrete alternatives to the president's efforts to resuscitate the economy other than giving tax breaks to the super wealthy.