The Verdicts Are In On Super Thursday (UPDATED)

Super Tuesday is now political history — and pundits are now doing their instant history. The main take from it is this: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had the big win: Ohio. And a win is a win. But it was not the night that the Republican establishment hoped it would be or that Mitt Romney had wished it was. Pundits agree that Romney remains a flawed front-runner. Meanwhle, former Pennsylvania Sen Rick Santorum has risen (somewhat) again, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has enough of a lifeline to hang in there, and Rep. Ron Paul isn’t going anywhere.

Here’s a cross section or reactions:

CNN has the winners and the losers here. Winner: Ohio. Loser: Rush Limbaugh. Winner: Bob McDonnell and Eric Cantor. Loser: Voter enthusiasm. Winner: Independents. Loser: GOP establishment.
Washington Post:

Nationwide, exit polls revealed two broad trends about Republican voters. The first was that many remain un­enthused about the slate of candidates: In Ohio and Tennessee, more than four in 10 said they had cast their ballots “with reservations.”

The second was that GOP voters remain deeply split about what should be the top priority in this race: ideology or electability. In Tennessee, for instance, nearly four in 10 voters said that the ability to beat Obama is the most important candidate attribute. Romney wins that group.

But just as many said they are looking for a candidate who is a “true conservative” or someone with strong moral character. These voters picked Santorum by an overwhelming margin.

Larry Sabato:

There are no upsets because the GOP base is still not ready to let go of the battle. It is obvious to almost every observer that Mitt Romney is likely to be the Republican nominee for president. But could it be that Republican activists want Romney put through his paces week after week, if only to drum into him the conservative principles they suspect he does not fully embrace?

If anything, Tuesday’s results confirm that Romney still has some big problems with the base of the party. The Republican Party is a Southern party, and he hasn’t done well in the South. More than seven in 10 Republican voters in Tennessee on Super Tuesday were evangelical Christians; only 24% of them supported Romney, according to exit polls (Romney won 28% in Tennessee overall). It’s not a surprise that Romney couldn’t win in the Volunteer State, even though polls showed a close race there in the closing days of the race. Romney could have had a truly Super Tuesday if he had won in Tennessee, but looking at the demographics it’s not surprising that he ended up falling far short (he even did better in Oklahoma, surprisingly).

We can make one prediction: No one is going to drop out of this contest any time soon. The race moves to Kansas on Saturday (March 10) and Mississippi and Alabama next Tuesday (March 13). Santorum starts out with an edge in the Sunflower State while he and Gingrich will battle it out in the Magnolia State and Yellowhammer State. In general, we are seeing even more clearly the regional pattern that has been emerging since January. Romney is winning the Northeast and the West (especially states with substantial Mormon populations). Gingrich’s strength is in the Deep South. Santorum is doing very well in the middle Midwest corridor as well as the border South. Where Ron Paul shows strength, it is usually in the caucus states of the West. We expect this pattern to persist for some time.

A debate is raging about whether this week-in, week-out battle is helping or hurting the Republican party. As usual, there are advantages and disadvantages. Romney is being tested and strengthened as a candidate — and by all indications, he needs the practice. Yet at the same time, the process is highly negative, has raised Romney’s unfavorables to dangerous levels, and has convinced a sizable portion of the Republican Party that their field is weak, their likely nominee unimpressive and their enthusiasm unwarranted. It is no wonder that the leadership of the GOP privately hopes for a quick resolution. At the Crystal Ball, however, we doubt their hope will be fulfilled.

Howard Kurtz:

The split verdict on Super Tuesday, the biggest day of the Republican race, means Romney will still have Santorum to kick around, and Newt Gingrich for that matter. Gingrich stayed alive by winning his home state of Georgia.

Given that Romney badly outspent him in Ohio, it was a morale boost for Santorum’s guerrilla outfit to fight the former governor to a photo finish on a day when voters in 11 states went to the polls.

The outcome raised fresh doubts about Romney’s ability to win in the South, with Santorum’s Tennessee triumph fueled by evangelical voters. And in a more fundamental sense, the stylistic contrast between the two made Romney seem scripted and Santorum scrappy.

Given that Romney would have been derided as a political weakling had he lost Ohio to Santorum, his razor-thin victory there was a noteworthy accomplishment; a win is a win in politics.

Romney is nothing if not resilient. But there is still something distinctly unimpressive about his 2012 performance, his inability to close the deal against an underfunded former senator who got trounced in his last reelection bid.

He always seems to do just well enough to stay ahead of the pack, but not well enough to convince the party that it’s time to close ranks behind him. He does well one week and stumbles the next. He projects competence but does not inspire.

--Andrew Sullivan:

11.11 pm. I’m clicking over to Comedy Central at this point. My take-away?

Santorum won three states and basically tied in Ohio. That keeps him afloat with some forward direction, especially given the upcoming primary states where Santorum has a demographic edge. The fact that he did this well despite being buried by Romney ads and money in Ohio is a real achievement. Romney, for his part, still cannot win blue-collar votes and still cannot nail down evangelical support. He comes away with many more delegates, but few bragging rights. In Ohio, he won everywhere Obama will win in the fall.

If Newt bowed out, we might have a real cotest. But he won’t. So we have, perhaps, the worst of all possible worlds for the GOP: a front-runner who cannot be stopped, but who is losing altitude against Obama with every vote, and being slimed by Republican rivals for at least another month. Even his stump speech has deteriorated. And his unfavorables continue a relentless rise.

Ugh.

Matt Mayer, National Review:

No matter how you slice it, the news out of Ohio on Super Tuesday is not good.

First, there are no moral victories in Ohio for Rick Santorum. As in Michigan, he lost despite having a solid lead just a week before the vote. Many Ohioans voted for Santorum in order to prevent Mitt Romney from winning and in the hope of finding someone better. With Ohio’s results, that strategy is now dead. Though the Republican primary will go on, Romney will be the nominee.

As for Romney, he and his team can put whatever spin they want on the results, but they can’t hide his continued inability to get a majority (as opposed to a plurality) of the vote in a contested battleground state. Keep in mind, Romney has been running for the presidency for more than five years, and he barely won in Ohio. He won only 20 of the state’s 88 counties — seven of which are Democratic. His ability to grossly outspend his weak primary opponents will not translate into a winning strategy against a well-funded Barack Obama.

Taking a step back from the particular candidates, the low voter turnout in Ohio signals serious trouble for Republicans in November. The projected final Republican vote count will be only 9 percent higher than the 2008 total when the Ohio primary largely didn’t matter and, equally troubling, it will be more than 1 million votes fewer than the number of votes cast in the Democratic primary in 2008. While we must acknowledge that anything can happen between now and November (see September 2008 financial meltdown), the low voter turnout indicates a continued lack of enthusiasm among the conservative base, suggesting that a Republican win in Ohio this November is unlikely.

--The Politico’s Maggie Haberman:

It’s better to win ugly than to lose pretty, especially in a key fall battleground state like Ohio. But the victory that Mitt Romney eked out Tuesday night over Rick Santorum in Ohio was far closer than his campaign would have liked.

With six states captured on the night — Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Vermont and Virginia — the front-runner is poised to take a majority of the 437 delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday. He remains the delegate leader, and he scored big in Massachusetts, Virginia and Idaho on that front.

And yet.

Romney, as we’ve written before, is likely heading into another bounce-free news cycle. The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign and its backers had hoped to use a strong night to start making the case that it’s time to wind this down, and his election night speech, delivered from Boston, was supposed to convey the aura of a nominee-in-waiting.
But in the end, he underperformed. He does not head into Wednesday with the spin on his side, and his campaign has done little to finesse expectations throughout this race. The muddled results Tuesday — Romney’s cache of victories, Newt Gingrich’s win in Georgia and Santorum’s surprisingly strong clinch in Tennessee accompanied by wins in Oklahoma and North Dakota — are going to do little to bring an immediate end to the primary.

The Ohio exit polls showed Romney is still struggling with working-class voters and evangelicals, as well as “very conservative” voters. He and his supporting super PAC also outspent Santorum 4 to 1 for a win of less than 15,000 votes. Losing Tennessee by a wide margin, after his campaign had hoped he would be competitive there, was also a blow: Had he taken the state, he could have essentially argued that, coupled with his Ohio win, the race was effectively over.
But he continues to have trouble in the South, traditional Republican territory. Romney now heads into a less-than-friendly patch of contests, with Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi up in the next week. That’s going to be a tough narrative for him to overcome. Worse, it will generate ongoing headlines about a failure to close the deal, even though most people — a majority of primary voters — agree that Romney is the eventual nominee.

Talking Points Memo:

But the big question is about narrative: will tonight be enough to put an end to a long primary slog that just about everyone agrees is hurting Romney who will, unless something incredible happens, be the Republican opponent for Obama in the fall? Romney, whose general poll numbers are at almost historically toxic levels for a frontrunning candidate, needs this primary to end — fast.

His rivals want it to continue. Rick Santorum spoke before the race in Ohio had been called, saying, “This was a big night tonight lots of states. We’re gonna win a few, we’re gonna lose a few, but as it looks right now we’re gonna get at least a couple of gold medals, and a whole passel full of silver medals.”

At the very least, the results will almost certainly keep Santorum in the race for the indefinite future. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who switched his allegiance from Romney to Santorum last month, the closeness of the race gave Santorum a serious shot to turn things into a clear two-man race — much to his surprise.

The Daily Mail:

Poor old Mitt Romney.

He wins six out of 10 states on Super Tuesday and a clear majority of the delegates available. He overcomes a 12-point opinion poll deficit in Ohio to narrowly beat Rick Santorum, who wins only three states.

In terms of delegates – the only measure that really counts – Romney is on 386, Santorum on 158, Newt Gingrich on 94 and Ron Paul on 60. He’s still far short of the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the Republican nomination, but that’s because of the proportional system introduced by the Republican party this year.

On Super Tuesday, according to RCP’s Erin McPike, he added to his vote total making it 3.2 million votes to Santorum’s 1.9 million. Thus far, he’s won 14 states to Santorum’s six, Gingrich’s two and Ron Paul’s zero.

Yet this is portrayed as Romney’s “worst night yet”, a “bad night”, as “winning ugly” and his candidacy is branded “lethargic”. Even the most favourable takes on the Super Tuesday results stress that he hasn’t sealed the deal with conservatives, that he’s outspent his rival fourfold but is still only just beating them and that the Obama campaign is delighted with life.

So what’s going on? Well, no one ever likes frontrunners and the establishment choice. Their well-organised campaigns come across as arrogant and robotic. The press loves a fight and loves an underdog.

It was this way in 2000, when George W. Bush was battling John McCain. To an extent, it was this way in 2008, when the underdog Obama eventually won.

And in this case much of the press, having covered Obama in 2008, believes Romney will be up against a man who will be very difficult to beat. Which means that the mindset is that even if he’s the winner of the GOP nomination, he’s ultimately going to be a loser.

There’s no doubt that Romney’s top advisers would like this to be over. One told me tonight that he believed it was different to 2008 when Obama-Clinton contest strengthened the eventual Democratic nominee Obama because in 2012 the GOP nominee will be up against an incumbent.

The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol:

So it’s not over.

And here’s why D.C. GOP teeth are gnashing so fiercely and loudly: It won’t be over for a while.

Mitt Romney of course remains the clear favorite. But the schedule over the next few weeks does him few favors. There are 14 primaries and caucuses in the next month, including Kansas on March 10, Alabama, Hawaii, and Mississippi on March 13, Missouri on March 17, Illinois on March 20, Louisiana on March 24, and Maryland and Wisconsin on April 3. Rick Santorum will probably hold his own—maybe more than hold his own—against Romney in these contests. (Furthermore, if Santorum can win Alabama and Mississippi next week, Gingrich may either get out or become fairly irrelevant, which would presumably help Santorum.)

Then there are three weeks off in April, so the get-the-race-over-crowd will have lots of free time to stew and gnash until the Northeast weighs in big on April 24, with Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Which, however, probably won’t provide an unambiguous verdict either. So then we’ll be on to the merry month of May.

Fun!

The Politico on Ron Paul:

Ron Paul placed second in the North Dakota caucuses, eliminating perhaps his best shot at winning a contest on Super Tuesday.

Paul finished behind Rick Santorum there, meaning that a first-place win continues to elude the Texas congressman as it has throughout the first dozen contests this year and previously in his 2008 campaign.

The loss portends another disappointing election night for the septuagenarian. It’s a cycle that has repeatedly played out during Paul’s third White House bid — huge crowds show up to Paul events, sparking confident predictions from his campaign team. But then the losses roll in, perhaps because many of the young voters who come to hear Paul don’t show up to vote.

Paul targeted and campaigned in three of the 10 Super Tuesday states — North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska. It’s part of his campaign’s broader strategy to focus on low-turnout caucuses in sparsely populated states where his libertarian message resonates and his supporters can exert greater influence in the process that awards delegates to the national convention.

UPDATE:
John Avlon notes that this race is most assuredly not over:

It’s far from over. Despite claiming six state wins last night and upping his delegate count to 404, Mitt Romney still does not have a lock on the nomination—or even a clear path to claiming it if his opponents don’t leave the field.

Consider this: If Mitt wins every remaining all-or-nothing state but one, and half of the remaining proportional delegates, he would likely still fall short of the magic nomination number of 1,144—which would force him to rely on unpledged delegates, the Republican version of the infamous Democratic superdelegates in 2008, to claim his party’s mantle.

Even if Mitt somehow won every delegate in every coming contest, he still wouldn’t clinch the nomination until Oregon’s primary on May 15.

And if Romney only musters 40% of the proportional delegates going forward—equivalent to his share of the popular vote total to date—it would mean the first Republican race undecided when the convention opened in a generation.

…What is certain is that he won’t be able to rack up the delegates needed to lock up the nomination in the coming month, when more than 400 delegates will be awarded and the schedule is not favorable for Romney—meaning narrative momentum is likely to shift against him at least in the near-term….

CNN:

Mitt Romney’s showing in six states was not a super one for the Republican presidential hopeful, who failed to produce the convincing wins needed to demonstrate his ability to generate support among diehard conservatives.

It was best illustrated by Romney’s big Super Tuesday win in the bellwether state of Ohio, where he eked out a win over Rick Santorum, after failing to attract strong support from tea party conservatives and evangelical conservatives.

The issue dogs Romney as he heads into the Kansas caucuses on Saturday, and primaries in Mississippi and Alabama on March 13. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Santorum are focusing on races in those conservative states in their battle to become the lone right-wing challenger to the more moderate Romney.

“He still has a problem with the base,” said Ari Fleischer, a CNN contributor who was press secretary for President George W. Bush. “That base problem may make him attractive to independents if he gets to a general” election, but can work against Romney in the primary season.

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  • slamfu

    I don’t think anything that happened yesterday qualifies as a verdict. Basically the split was just enough to keep all the candidates in the race and drag it out even further. I’m an atheist, but I’m going to set that aside and pray once at least every day for this circus to come to an end.

  • Jim Satterfield

    Super Thursday?