So what sort of “win” was that? Here’s Argument A: a win is a win is a win. That’s true in sports. If LSU plays horribly against Middle Tennessee State, but kicks a field goal with :03 left to win, well, LSU won. It’s over, and time to focus on Auburn. By that logic, Mitt Romney won Ohio and sails forward. And Argument B: this isn’t sports. This isn’t about earned performance on a field of play. It’s about what voters think. And if voters think that the guy who outspent the other guy by 10 or 12 to 1 and was supposed to have this locked up weeks ago is a guy they just barely agreed to push forward to the next fight, then it’s not much of a win at all. The Romney team will obviously spin Argument A, but Republicans all over the country, if they have any sense, are going to come out of Super Tuesday even more nervous about Romney than they were.
Romney eked it out in Ohio, but he still managed to emerge bruised from Super Tuesday. He won Massachusetts. Big woop. Vermont, ditto. In Virginia, he won, but he won in as embarrassing a fashion as it’s possible to win something. With only him and cranky Ron Paul on the ballot, Romney managed just 59 percent of the vote to Paul’s 41. When Ron Paul is winning 41 percent of the vote, it’s time to stop and smell the rotting roses. And then Romney won some caucuses in some who-cares states that would vote red in November if Rush Limbaugh’s hamster was on the ballot, and that in any case have about as many electoral votes as Baltic Street has value in Monopoly. Who cares?
What’s amazing is that Romney seems oblivious to his problems. That’s what grabbed me Tuesday night. He gave a speech ... just an awful speech, his normal stump speech, a speech he’s given 300 times, a speech about Barack Obama and the economy, at a time when the economy is changing for the better and helping the president, who has gone (by the way) from being tied with Romney a few weeks ago to being 6, 7 points ahead of him. And in the face of those dramatically changed conditions, Romney hasn’t changed the speech! He hasn’t changed a thing. He just seems to think that he can outspend these absurdly underfinanced opponents, bury them, these doorstep foundlings, these third-raters, pound them into submission with attack ads, and move on to the next quarry. And on paper, he’s done that. But only on paper. Emotionally, he hasn’t, and he can’t. If anyone won Super Tuesday, it was—by a hair—Rick Santorum, by virtue of his wins in Tennessee and Oklahoma and his strong performance in Ohio.
The pressure stays on Romney heading into next week. And the map next week does not favor him. Alabama? Mississippi? Kansas? Missouri? Maybe the last two, but they’re just as plausibly Santorum states too (he already won Missouri, which is voting again because of an election-law quirk). And the first are almost surely states that will lean naturally toward Newt Gingrich, who gave a classic Newt, kind-of-crazy and kind-of-brilliant speech Tuesday night from Atlanta.
Romney can probably cruise to the nomination—eventually. Despite the lame night perception-wise, he had a strong delegate night. He can take comfort in that and just keep doing what he’s been doing. But if he just does that, if he sticks to the current playbook, the questions that have dogged him since January will persist. He needs to do something to change the narrative. Something that makes people say, “Wow, Mitt Romney did that?” I don’t know exactly what that something is, and if I knew, I sure wouldn’t tell him. But think back, for example, to 2008, and the Democratic Michigan primary. Hillary Clinton was closing in on Barack Obama. He was perceived as inspiring, but not really connecting to working people in a nuts-and-bolts kind of way. So, in Michigan, he gave a big speech where he tried to do that. It was only partially successful, but at least he changed the game plan and showed a little flexibility.
That’s what Romney needs to do now. But everything we’ve seen from the guy shows that he’s completely incapable. He’ll keep grinding out just the number of wins he needs, by just the margins he needs. Remember Mario Cuomo’s famous and brilliant quote, about how a politician campaigns in poetry but governs in prose? Romney campaigns in prose. And dull prose. He’s the James Fennimore Cooper of the hustings. Makes you wonder how he’d govern, but fortunately, it seems we’ll never know.