Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.
That’s all that matters on Super Tuesday.
Yes, 11 states are voting in presidential primaries and caucuses, and 424 delegates—twice as many as in the dozen contests to date—are at stake.
But the media, and the political community, will judge the day by whether Rick Santorum manages to win Ohio or Mitt Romney hangs on for a slim victory, as he did in Michigan. An NBC poll released Sunday shows Santorum with a statistically insignificant 2-point edge, but the overall trend has been toward Romney.
If Santorum wins, the punditocracy will declare that he has propelled himself back into the thick of the race and once again demonstrated Romney’s inability to close the deal. If Romney wins, the consensus will harden that he is the inevitable nominee, even though he will face a long slog to claiming the crown.
The reason for the obsessive focus on the Buckeye State is due in part to the media’s walk-and-chew-gum inability to deal with more than one contest at a time. But as a state crucial to Republicans in the industrial heartland, Ohio is also Tuesday’s best test of the strength of the top two candidates.
Measured as a matter of math, Tuesday should be a fairly super day for Romney. He is guaranteed to win Virginia, where Santorum and Newt Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot. He is a lock to carry Massachusetts, the state where he was governor. Georgia is basically off the table with Gingrich, the former congressman from suburban Atlanta, holding a commanding lead.
That leaves Tennessee, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska. Polls show Santorum with a double-digit lead in Oklahoma but a slim lead in Tennessee.
But while the nomination is ultimately about accumulating 1,144 delegates, the contest, at least at this stage, is fueled by perception and momentum.
Exhibit A: Even if Santorum carries Ohio, Romney will walk away with the majority of delegates, since the former senator did not file full slates in more than half the districts. But that will be an asterisk in the next day’s headlines.
In the past, the Republican race probably would have been over by now. But there have been two major changes in 2012.
First, the GOP switched many of the state contests to proportional representation, slowing the progress of any frontrunner because even the losers can pick up some delegates in states where they are beaten.
Second, the advent of super PACs means that trailing candidates who once would have run out of cash now have an artificial lifeline. It would have been hard for Santorum to stay competitive without Wyoming financier Foster Friess putting big bucks behind the supposedly independent group that backs him. The same goes for Gingrich’s reliance on Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has poured millions into a pro-Newt group.
Romney has tried to foster a sense that the party is coalescing around him by rolling out endorsements from two high-profile conservatives, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. On the other hand, he got creamed in South Carolina despite the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley. And in Ohio, state Attorney General Mike DeWine switched his endorsement from Romney to Santorum.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (PDF) settles the argument over whether the grueling campaign, and the highly contentious debates, have hurt the GOP. Four in 10 of those surveyed say the process has given them a less favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 12 percent say they have a more favorable view. Sixty-nine percent of respondents, asked to describe the battle in a word or phrase, offered such negative language as “unenthusiastic,” “discouraged,” “lesser of two evils,” “disappointed,” and “painful.”
Romney comes across as a battered frontrunner, with just 28 percent of those questioned holding a favorable view and 39 percent taking an unfavorable view. That, NBC noted, is worse than Barack Obama, John McCain, John Kerry, George W. Bush, and Bob Dole were faring at this point in the process. The exception, as NBC noted, was Bill Clinton, who was still recovering from allegations of philandering and draft-dodging.
The same poll gives Obama a 50 percent approval rating and shows the president leading Romney by 6 points in a fall matchup.
What’s striking is the sense of gloom that has enveloped the conservative side, just two months into a year that seemed to favor the GOP. Columnist George Will now writes that neither Romney nor Santorum “seems likely to be elected. Neither has demonstrated, or seems likely to develop, an aptitude for energizing a national coalition that translates into 270 electoral votes.”
But somebody has to win the nomination. Super Tuesday used to be the day when the party’s leading contender put the contest away. Whether Romney wins Ohio or not, that day, for him, remains at the end of a long, winding road.