Michael Tomasky on Mitt’s Months of Misery in the Primaries to Come

Romney's become a punch-line and a punching bag. And that isn't going to change any time soon.

How long can this go on? Pretty darn long. Take a look at the calendar. The only date resembling a potential firewall for Mitt Romney is more than a month away, but even that Tuesday also features Pennsylvania, which presumably Rick Santorum will carry. The delegate math might ultimately be there for Romney, but by then he will have lost more than 20 states—to a candidate who was a joke four months ago. He is without question the shakiest frontrunner in recent American history. Let’s go through the dates.

March 17: This Saturday we have Missouri caucuses (the state already held its primary, which Santorum won handily, but because the national party changed the rules after the primary date was set, the primary was rendered nonbinding, so they have to hold these caucuses, too). The rules for Saturday are ridiculously complicated. No winner will be declared Saturday night. Delegates won’t be apportioned until April and June. I know. Don’t ask me. This is probably a slight blow to Santorum, assuming he wins the caucuses as he did the primary, but no result to speak of leaves us at the status quo.

March 18: Puerto Rico. Small prize, not a real state, doesn’t matter much.

March 20: Illinois next Tuesday. Obvious biggie. The Chicago Tribune just had a poll giving Romney a 5-point edge. Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Institute just did a survey of 18 downstate counties giving Santorum a 29-21 lead. The statewide vote in a GOP primary, says the institute’s John Jackson, is about 45 percent from the Collar Counties (five swing counties surrounding Chicago), 30 percent from Cook County (much larger than Chicago), and 25 percent from downstate. That math would seem to favor Romney, who’ll do well in the Collar Counties. But a hefty 42 percent of voters say they’re evangelical Christians.

Once, Romney was supposed to win this state by 15 or 20 points. He’s got all the major endorsements. Not one prominent state Republican is behind Santorum. And yet he’s in essence tied (i.e., within the margin of error in the Trib poll). If he loses, it’s an earthquake. And if he ekes one out as he did in Michigan and Ohio, Santorum still isn’t going anywhere.

March 24: Louisiana. Santorum leads and should win—deeply conservative, decent-size Catholic vote.

April 3: District of Columbia, Maryland, and Wisconsin. The first two are navy blue, so, while Maryland has a respectable number of delegates, they won’t really matter very much psychologically. Wisconsin is the big prize this night. There, Santorum leads the latest polls, and by a lot. A win there would matter. Republicans and the media still think of it as a swing state, although I think the odds are awfully long that it actually is. But imagine a double-digit Santorum win, with him giving his victory speech to a pumped-up crowd in solid, blue-collar Milwaukee.

Oh, and by the way, what happens if Gingrich does end up dropping out some point soon? Santorum would win some of these places by even bigger margins.

April 24: This is as close as Romney gets to a firewall night, and it’s not really very close. New York and Connecticut are probably W’s for Mittens. Ditto tiny Rhode Island. Delaware, you’d think Romney, but remember: Delaware Republicans nominated a witch. The final state this night is Pennsylvania. Santorum is well ahead in his home state, although Romney does have some prominent supporters and the money to flood both major TV markets. But assuming Santorum holds on there, he’ll have sorta-kinda held his own that night, especially so if he manages to swipe one more state.

May 8: Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia. Those don’t sound like Romney states to me. Remember, we’re talking about the GOP primary electorate in all these places. Pretty out there. Indiana, for example, is where longtime conservative GOP incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar is in very serious danger of losing to a Tea Party novice.

May 15, May 22: Respectively, Nebraska and Oregon; Arkansas and Kentucky. One out of four at best for Romney. Plus ample opportunity to say something stupid like several of his close friends own thoroughbred stables (it will be Triple Crown season).

May 29: Texas. A big date, with 155 delegates at stake.

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June 5: California (172 delegates), along with New Jersey and New Mexico, Montana, and South Dakota; and finally Utah on June 26.

Show me where in that schedule Romney lowers the boom. It’s hard to see. Maybe if he pulls off Texas. Kind of hard to see that happening, but he will spend more money than Jerry Jones did on his stadium. And he probably will win California, at the very end of the process, although again, we’re talking about a fairly conservative GOP electorate. The Romney knockout-punch dates have already come and gone, and no one is prone on the canvas.

Now, the different delegate rules in the various states, combined with the obvious fact that the voting hasn’t taken place yet, makes assigning delegate counts impossible. Santorum may yet have more slip-ups here. In Illinois, for example, his campaign didn’t file delegate slates in three of the 18 congressional districts. But can Romney hit 1,144 given the menu of remaining states? He is only 43 percent of the way home right now, with 495, and more than half the states have voted or caucused, although four big ones remain.

He’ll have lots of time to fix things up, if he is the nominee. But think back about how your own view of Mitt Romney has changed in the last six months. Half a year ago, I’d say most people thought: successful, smooth, maybe a little too smooth, but formidable. Now? He’s a punch line. And a punching bag. And the calendar shows that he’s going to continue to be both for a while yet.