Do Rick’s Wins Matter?

So late last night my friend Jonathan Bernstein and I were having one of those twitter arguments about the greater meaning, if any, of last night’s victories by Rick Santorum. Jonathan, as some of you may know, basically thinks Romney wrapped up the 2012 nomination shortly after his graduation from Harvard Business School. Just kidding! Seriously, though, Jonathan is a big believer in the power of elites to determine presidential nominations, and thinks a lot of the media hooplah surrounding this or that twist or turn in the contest is just a diversion from the underlying reality that Romney is the nominee barring something really unprecedented happening.

So when I expressed my wonderment that Mitt had now blown his fourth chance to nail down the nomination, Jonathan quite naturally asked: Does it really matter?

And that’s the question of the day. No, I do not think Rick Santorum is going to be raising his arms in triumph as the GOP presidential nominee in Tampa this August. Romney’s nomination remains a virtual certainty, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s obvious to everybody (that could happen as early as next Tuesday, if Mitt wins in Illinois).

But Romney’s continued stumbling matters, I think, for three reasons. The first is that it will cost his friends, and maybe his family, a whole lot of money. The Romney campaign and his Super-PAC have already committed over three million dollars for ads in Illinois. The costs will keep rising, particularly given the big conservative fundraising confab that happened over the weekend in Texas to begin making Santorum competitive financially, even before his Tuesday wins. And speaking of Texas, if Romney hasn’t nailed this sucker down by May 29, when that state holds its primary, the costs will become astronomical.

Aside from money, every moment Romney spends battling Santorum is another moment lost for his general election campaign. And he’s not just losing time, but the opportunity to position himself where he wants. He’s long since passed the fork in the road that leads to a general election message, and has now wandered miles down a twisting path to the right in his ever-futile effort to deny his opponents oxygen by placating conservative activists. That path, and the path back to sanity, just got a lot longer. For a candidate who has already hurt himself by earning a reputation as a flip-flopper, every step could be treacherous.

And finally, Mitt’s one big mistake away from blowing the whole race and giving the nomination either to Santorum or to whoever party poohbahs can scare up to “save” the GOP. I’ve heard some Romney apologists try to compare his 2012 campaign to Obama’s in 2008. After all, it took BHO a long time to win, and in the end it may have even helped him, right?

C’mon, give me a break. Obama was running a history-making campaign against Hillary Clinton. Romney may be a historic figure to LDS members, but for everybody else he’s just another white guy in a suit, and he’s struggling to beat Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, every one of them a stone loser from the get-go. As Politico‘s Jonathan Martin put it today:

[T]he establishment favorite needs to explain why, two-and-a-half months into the primary season, he can’t seem to put away underfunded rivals who are viewed by many in the party as general election disasters.

At some point the questions about Romney’s quality as a candidate could simply become unanswerable, and if that happens he is doomed.

Sure, AL and MS were in some respects death-traps for Mitt, and he didn’t do all that badly given the demographics of these places. But he had all the money and the endorsements in the world, and still couldn’t croak Rick Santorum, a man so unformidable that virtually no one outside of Iowa even knew he was running as recently as Christmas. That matters when almost no one other than your co-religionists is supporting you for any reason other than your alleged “electability.” And it matters more every time you lose.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.