While Mitt Romney’s six victories in the “Super Tuesday” Republican primaries will allow him to maintain his status as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a protracted and ugly battle for primary delegates could continue even up to the August convention, according to Stanford faculty observers.
Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, currently holds 415 delegates, more than the combined totals of the other contenders, and will require 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. The Romney campaign has sought to portray his victories on Tuesday — including a narrow win in the crucial battleground state of Ohio — and his superiority in the delegate count as cues for the Republican party to coalesce behind his candidacy.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, expressed skepticism, however, that the Super Tuesday results changed the dynamic of the primary race, arguing that — while Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum remain Romney’s principal challengers — no candidate offered a particularly strong performance.
“There was no big winner on Tuesday, but Romney avoided a disaster,” said Tammy Frisby, lecturer in political science and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. “To say he was a big winner is to overplay what he accomplished.”
Whalen described both Santorum’s comfortable victory in Tennessee — despite indications of a surge by Romney in the days before the primary — and the narrowness of Romney’s margin of victory in Ohio as surprising outcomes.
“Romney won by 10,000 votes in a state where he outspent Santorum 4 to 1, in a state where he was far more organized than Santorum,” Whalen said.
Despite Romney’s substantial lead in delegates, Whalen noted that his inability to connect with socially conservative Republicans — and his failure to mobilize the Republican base — could create a problematic enthusiasm gap for the party in the upcoming general election against President Barack Obama.
While attaining 1,144 delegates may be mathematically improbable for Santorum and Gingrich, Whalen said that if both continue to siphon off delegates from Romney’s tally, they may have the opportunity to block Romney from winning on the first ballot at the Republican convention.
Romney’s reliance on narrow plurality wins has led to increased vulnerability and, in Whalen’s estimation, the race’s possible continuation up to the June 5 California primary.
“If the race continues on its current trajectory, Romney can win the majority of the delegates before the convention,” Frisby said.
However, citing Santorum and Gingrich’s refusals to drop out of the race, she added, “Super Tuesday did nothing to change the likelihood that we’re going all the way to the convention.”
Whalen further downplayed the chances of Santorum or Gingrich winning the nomination, noting that even though Santorum had won states around the country — unlike Gingrich, who has only won so far in Georgia and South Carolina — his losses in Ohio and Michigan diminished his assertion that he could be competitive in blue-collar states in a general election.
Whalen said that Obama could be the principal beneficiary of the Republicans’ intra-party conflict, citing the negative effects of the protracted primary’s heated rhetoric. He added that the uninspiring victory margins could hurt Romney’s popularity with independent voters.
“The longer Republicans fight each other, the more presidential Barack Obama looks,” Whalen said. “He looks like a leader, and the Republicans look divided.”
Frisby highlighted the 2008 Democrat primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Obama as evidence that an extended primary has the potential to produce a tested and polished candidate, but disputed the notion that any such benefits are currently accruing to the Republican contenders.
“You want to move into the general election with a strong organization and a clear message,” Frisby said. “The Republicans appear to be failing on that dramatically…The lack of a compelling message is quite striking.”