What Last Night's Primaries Mean for Romney

The Atlantic
What Last Night's Primaries Mean for Romney

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What Last Night's Primaries Mean for Romney

As expected, Mitt Romney swept five Republican primary elections Tuesday night, but even if the winner is no surprise, his vote totals can still tell us something.

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The Republican establishment has been sending mixed messages about how ready it is to embrace Romney as the party's presidential nominee, and last night, voters sent mixed messages, too. The University of Minnesota's Eric Ostermeier explains that Romney won by the smallest percentage of any Republican nominee whose main competition had dropped out in the last 40 years. Every other eventual nominee since 1972 has gotten more than 60 percent in every contest since the opposition dropped out, except Romney. He got 58 percent in Pennsylvania and 56 percent in Delaware. But if you rank the candidates by their opposition-less vote totals, a low lowest score doesn't appear to correlate with failure in the general election.

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  • 1996: Bob Dole wins 61.3 percent in Montana. Wins zero terms in the White House.
  • 2000: George W. Bush wins 63.3 percent in Utah. Wins two terms.
  • 1980: Ronald Reagan gets 63.8 percent in New Mexico. Wins two terms.
  • 1988: George H.W. Bush gets 68 percent in Nebraska. Wins one term.
  • 2008: John McCain wins 69.7 percent in Idaho. Wins zero terms.

"While Romney avoided the embarrassment of winning with a mere plurality, never has a presumptive nominee won a primary contest with such a low level of support at this stage of the race with his chief challenger no longer actively campaigning," Ostermeier says. But why should the vote totals matter in contests that don't? National Journal's Beth Reinhard explained before the elections that "there’s a group of hardcore voters who show up even when the presidential primary has been settled." These are called "expressive voters" by George Mason University associate professor Michael McDonald, and Reinhard reported that these voters might express dissatisfaction with Romney by staying home. In the Florida primary in January, for example, the fewer people voted in the counties that backed Romney than did in the 2008 primary.

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So what did Tuesday's turnout show? Not great news for Romney. In Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum's home state and one that Romney won by a relatively smaller margin, less than 800,000 people voted out of 3 million Republicans registered in the state. That's a 26.6 percent turnout -- not too bad for a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, in New York, where Romney won by 62.4 percent of the vote, there are 2.8 million registered Republicans, but just 153,500 people voted -- that's 5 percent. In Rhode Island, voter turnout was 3 percent, The Boston Globe reports, though that appears to be a tally of all registered voters in the very Democratic state. Romney won that state with 63.2 percent.

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Another metric to judge Romney's performance? Counting the words in his victory speech. The Washington Examiner's Byron York points out that you can tell Romney has switched to a general election message by the words he used Tuesday. Per York:

 A lot of key words in the Romney campaign didn't appear Tuesday night.  The words "tax" and "taxes" didn't appear.  The words "deficit" and "spending" didn't appear.  There was no "budget."  No "growth."  Romney also didn't use the word "conservative" -- a word he used more than 20 times to describe himself during a speech earlier this year to the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Instead, Romney's speech was filled with phrases like "good and decent Americans" and "fighting chance" and "principles of freedom and opportunity" and "fundamentally fair."

"Fairness," of course, has been the Obama campaign's message for months. Another interesting moment in the speech: He attacked Obama for pushing "distractions" presumably a reference to the doggie and mommy wars of late that his campaign has happily indulged in. It's not about that, Romney warned, "It’s still about the economy... and we’re not stupid. "

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Oh, man, that sounds really familiar! Where have we heard that before? Ah, yes, in the headline of a Weekly Standard post by Bill Kristol: "It’s Not (Only) the Economy... and We’re Not Stupid." In that February 13 post, Kristol was arguing that Romney shouldn't be the nominee because all he can talk about is the economy, while Santorum could talk about everything. After you beat 'em, steal from 'em?

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