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Last night's caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado, and the non-binding primary in Missouri had to have been fairly painful not only to Mitt Romney and his organization, but also to all the Bain Capital execs and other wealthy folks pouring money into the Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future. Newt Gingrich couldn't have felt too good by the end of the night either.
The decision by Gingrich to not bother paying the money to get on the ballot in Missouri's "beauty contest" primary may have seemed like a smart cost-effective move when made, but now the public is able to see one very clear indication from Missouri voters that when just one "True Conservative" is up against "Massachusetts' Moderate" Romney head-to-head, rather than having Gingrich and Santorum split the more conservative voters, Romney loses. Having decided to avoid Missouri all together Gingrich now has to figure out how he can claw his way back to the top of the "True Conservative" totem pole. Santorum currently has that territory staked out pretty well by running the table in all three of the contests yesterday.
Paul Begala put the results in good context today on the Daily Beast website:
Because Romney ran so hard in the 2008 primaries before dropping out and throwing his support to McCain, we have some historical context for how relatively well he is doing among GOP voters on this his second trip around the block.
Romney has more money, more national experience, more consultants, more staff. Heck, he even has better hair. His super PAC outspent Santorum's by a 40-to-1 margin. Forty to one. And yet Mitt Romney lost. He lost to a guy who lost his home state by 18 points the last time he was on the ballot there. There's a technical term in political consulting for a performance like that: it's called sucking. If Romney can't beat Rick Santorum, he needs to find another party to run in.
The lesson from Missouri, as Santorum's talented admaker, John Brabender, told The New York Times's John Harwood: "in a clean one-on-one with Romney, we beat him."
Team Romney might say, "Au contraire." They would surely note that Missouri didn't count. Technically accurate, politically untrue. Romney losing a nonbinding primary to Santorum is like the New York Yankees losing an exhibition game to a church-league softball team.
In 2008, Romney won the Colorado caucus with 60% of the 70,000 votes cast. No one else, including John McCain, from the neighboring state of Arizona, received a third as many votes as Romney. This year Santorum captured 40% of the vote to Romney's 35%. Other stories arise from the Colorado caucus. The polling that occurred in Colorado leading up to Tuesday was wildly off. As recently as February 6 Public Policy Polling had Romney leading Santorum by 10 percentage points in Colorado. A PPP poll two days earlier had Romney up over Santorum by 14 points. Moreover, Republican turnout in Colorado declined by 8% compared to 2008. While not a huge difference, it seems to be in line with lower turnout in earlier GOP contests this year (with the exception of South Carolina). Finally, the outcome may signal that the Tea Party movement is still able to maintain significant influence on GOP politics in Colorado, in the wake of a disastrous pick by the Tea Party for the open U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
The informative news out of Missouri was that Romney failed to win a single county in the Missouri non-binding primary. In 2008, he won thirteen counties, including St. Louis County. Santorum received 55 percent of the vote to Romney's 25 percent. In 2008, Romney placed third to McCain and Huckabee, but got a larger percentage of the vote total, 29 percent, than he received this year. While the GOP voter turnout in Missouri was down by over 300,000 voters, this was a result of the 2008 primary being binding, and this year's being a beauty contest, with the actual delegate apportionment being done based on a county caucus in March.
Minnesota's results were just as wretched for Romney. First, he was endorsed by former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who must today be seeing his cabinet level appointment in a Romney administration sailing away "hull down" over the horizon. Second, he carried just one county in Minnesota. In 2008, Romney garnered almost as many votes in winning the Minnesota caucus (25,990) as McCain and Huckabee combined. Last night he received less than one third as many votes as he got in 2008 (8,096), and finished behind Ron Paul by over 5,000 votes and 11 percentage points.
While the Romney campaign can do some spinning on the Missouri loss, where he didn't really campaign, they can't do that with Colorado or Minnesota, where he did, and ended up performing terribly.
Restore Our Future has already spent over $17,000,000 in attacking Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on behalf of Mitt Romney, in just six primary contests. Most of that money has come from hedge fund and investment bank owners or partners who have already maxed out their direct contributions to the Romney campaign, according to Think Progress. If you were Julian Robertson or Paul Singer, each of whom has now pumped a million bucks into Restore Our Future, you would have to be sitting around today wondering if you couldn't have put a nice addition on your vacation home with the money rather than investing it in support of a candidate who most of the 99% seemingly think is a lousy candidate. Think a campaign "of the one percenter, by the one percenters, for the one percenters."
I would not be surprised to see the far right wing of the Republican Party end up looking at this November's election as being most important not as an effort to purge the nation of Obama, but to prove a point about the threat to the purity of the party posed by moderate conservatives. If Romney goes on to win the nomination and loses badly to Obama in the fall, it could serve as the mirror image of the impact on ideological control of the GOP resulting from Goldwater's loss to Johnson in 1964.