How Romney's Arizona, Michigan primary wins have changed the race

Feb 29, 2012

Mitt Romney won both of Tuesday's Republican presidential primaries, routing Rick Santorum in Arizona and narrowly securing Michigan, his birth state.

How have Romney's wins changed the race for the GOP presidential nomination? Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who reported on this story, chatted with readers on this topic.

- Mitt Romney wins Arizona, Michigan primaries
- Trail Mix: Arizona or Michigan - which state is a bigger win for Mitt Romney?

Hello all. So Mitt Romney got what he wanted last night: a big win in Arizona and a narrow one in Michigan. That was the good news. The bad news, for Romney's camp, was that exit polls showed he still hasn't captured a huge piece of the Republican electorate. Voters who called themselves very conservative, or evangelical, broke heavily for Santorum.

Another piece of bad news: Santorum seems to have found a pretty low-cost method of campaigning that can keep him competitive with the big-spending Romney. Which means: this will go on.

Let's get to your questions...

How many delegates did Romney and Santorum win in Michigan?

Hey--we'll start with an easy question. Romney and Santorum each won 11 delegates in Michigan. So, while Romney's win was good for his confidence--and for giving us media folks something to talk about--it bought him as many delegates as Santorum's loss.

What's changed? I think the GOP is still seeing Romney as a fairly weak front runner. The only race that will be watched next week is Ohio. If he wins, he retains front runner status, but weak, since it will be close, if he loses, he's still the front runner, but weaker.

What's changed is that Romney has proven--just as he did in Florida--that his money and organization can pull out big wins in big states. He saved himself from a disaster in Michigan, which might really have opened the door to convention mayhem. Now, he's the front-runner again.

 To me, the big news from Super Tuesday will be if Romney is facing two main challengers, or just one. If Gingrich can't win in Georgia and other Southern states, this may be down to a two-man race between Romney and Santorum

Romney's victories on Tuesday are unlikely to solve the larger problems that have held back his campaign. Even after months of work and millions of dollars spent, he has not won over a vast swath of Republicans. That was clear from Michigan exit polls, which showed that Santorum had beaten Romney decisively among important Republican blocs. The former senator from Pennsylvania held a 15-point lead among voters who identify themselves as "very conservative," a 40-point edge among those who say they want their candidate to be "a true conservative" and a 41-point advantage among those who want a candidate with "strong moral character."

How is this a larger problem, or any problem at all ? Unless you conclude that these types of voters are going to spite themselves and stay home on election day....does anyone believe that a "very conservative" or "true conservative" or a person with "strong moral character" is going to stay home in November and not cast a vote against Obama ?

Good question. You're right that, if Romney eventually wins the nomination, he probably won't worry that these "very conservative" voters will defect to Obama. His bigger worry is a drawn-out primary fight, which will deplete his reserves of money, and leave him unable to attract independent voters in the general (either because they've heard so much dirt dug up on him, or because he's taken hard-right stands they don't like).

I don't think we should race to any major conclusions with the outcome of these primaries just yet. Even though Romney won them in the strictest technical sense, Michigan was still very tight, and that says to me that Republicans are still very hesitant to embrace him. For what reasons, I couldn't say (though I'm guessing it's because he's a Mormon and not a "true Christian," or because his health care systems was the model for Obamacare, or because he's "not conservative enough"), though I think that if Romney eventually does become the nominee, it'll be a battered victory from all the Republican in-fighting, and it probably won't leave him in a position of strength to win the White House.

That's a good analysis. But--even more than this primary fight--Romney's big worry has to be that the economy will improve noticeably. He's built his whole campaign around the idea that he's a master of turnarounds (in business, at the Olympics, facing a budget crisis in Massachusetts). He has drawn sharp contrasts to Obama as an economic manager, pointing out his dearth of business experience. But...if the economy's improving, voters may not feel they need a turnaround artist after all.

Hi David, It seems it continues to be an advantage for Mitt to be facing two rivals for the not-Romney vote rather than one. Do you think without Newt in Michigan that Santorum would have won? Will Rick and Newt staying in for the long hall continue to help Mitt in tight races? It seems Paul voters are just Paul voters so his staying in doesn't help or hurt anyone.

That's a smart question. I don't know if we can be sure Santorum would have won Michigan without Gingrich there--some of Newt's votes would probably have gone to Romney, too. From Romney's perspective, I'm sure he likes that the two of them divide the anti-Romney voting bloc. But Romney  probably doesn't like having two articulate opponents constantly picking at his flaws (one from a religious-moral perspective, the other from a world-historical perspective).

David, thanks for the chat. I have never seen such disdain for a frontrunner for a Party's nomination than the way the voters feel about Governor Romney. Do you believe that future historians and political scientists will view Romeny as a George McGovern?

My experience in politics is not long enough to do a great McGovern comparison. To me, a possible parallel now might be Al Gore in 2000: somebody who made sense on paper, but lacked a certain kind of confidence or charisma to put him over the top. After a while, for Gore, his charisma troubles became an issue in themselves (we were repeatedly writing about tweaks in message or persona). Romney, of course, is much more dependent on an outside factor: the economy.

"Going to the candidates' debale/ laugh about it, shout about it, when you've got to choose/ everway you look at it you lose." Too bad Joltin' Joe can't run.

Is this Paul or Art? I, for one, have really enjoyed the debates this year. I feel like we've actually heard a lot about the ideas these candidates would try to implement as president--more than we would know if they hadn't had to face a moderator (and each other) 20 times now.

Is any fact other than the delegate count really of any significance? For example, after Mr. Santorum won three nonbinding races, all the punditry was on how it changed the race. Given no change in the delegate count, it didn't. What evidence supports the accuracy of how pundits (and reporters) report on so-called effects? What is the value of crystal-balling (other than a pay check)?

There's always a little hall-of-mirrors effect in political reporting: we report on the trends in voting, but of course some of those trends (especially those driven by perceptions of "electability") are driven  Still, even some non-binding races can be important, if they show a candidate like Santorum (previously considered a long shot) succeeding in drawing out large numbers of voters.

It's my guess that we've developed this style of reporting (focused on broader trends in the narrative, rather than narrowly on delegate counts) because it's been so long since there was a real convention fight. The delegate math has usually ceased to matter, at some point, and the residue of any primary became the ideas and opinions that it had attached to the nominee. This year, though, the numbers may matter very, very much.

Hi David, Are you sure you are not really Mitts adviser with just a slight name change to fool us?

You mean, am I actually Eric Fehrnstrom in electronic disguise? No. Usually in Washington, if I'm mistaken for anybody, it's this guy:

(no relation).

When will a Romney win be considered an actual move forward? It seems that whenever he loses a caucus/primary, the prevailing story line is that his campaign is in trouble, but when he wins, he merely met expectations. He actually seems to have done quite well in Arizona, of course, but also with most voter demographics in Michigan.

I think Romney could change the storyline by winning a number of states in a row, and winning big (as big as his advantage in money and organization). The amazing thing about these primaries is that he's been beaten (in some places) by candidates with little money, and their own well-known flaws. And those wins often indicate that Romney has made little progress on his biggest task of the whole primary season, winning over what Romney might call "severely conservative" voters.

Hi David -- Thanks for taking questions today. By way of full disclosure, I'm an Obama supporter, but it seems to me that Gov. Romney is not helping himself very much in his "post primary" victory speeches. Those are opportunities tolay out some sort of positive vision of where he would take the country if elected, but instead all we get is more Obama bashing, and even that comes off as forced and awkward. Why isn't someone advising him to strike a more positive and "visionary" note? Or is that asking too much of this candidate? Or is it a matter of doing what he needs to do to survive the primaries and the "vision thing" will come later, assuming he's the nominee?

I thought that Romney's post-victory speech last night was intended to boil down his message to something short and memorable. Romney likes complication, thrives on it. That's what made him a successful businessman, and what defined his time in Massachusetts: he cares about details. But, in this election, it led him to unveil a 59-point economic plan--which was promptly upstaged by Herman Cain's 9-9-9.

Last night, he talked about making goverment sleeker, smarter, and smaller. That will probably be the core of Romney's message in the coming days, a short three-point mantra. I wasn't surprised that he talked a lot about Obama: Romney has always sought to portray himself mainly as an alternative to Obama (who he blames for bad management and weakness in foreign policy). That's what has made Romney so vulnerable to Gingrich and Santorum. Both of them cast themselves as leaders of whole movements of people (the tea party, religious conservatives), not just a new boss that's better than the old boss.

Ok folks, I'm out of time. Thanks for your great questions, and please keep reading.

In This Chat
David Fahrenthold
David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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