The Morning After

Mitt Romney had a good day yesterday, winning primaries or caucuses in six states. Currently, the delegate count stands as follows:

Romney — 415
Santorum — 176
Gingrich — 105
Paul — 47
Huntsman — 2

So Romney has won 56% of all of the delegates that have been chosen so far. Normally that would be considered a strong performance, but Mitt struggles to get respect from the commentariat. The New York Times, to name just one of countless examples, headlined this morning: “Fight Plods On As Romney Fails to Land Knockout Blow.” The Times wrote that Romney “must now decide whether steps are necessary to repair his lethargic candidacy.”

But by historic standards, there is no reason to scoff at Romney’s performance so far. After Super Tuesday in 2008, John McCain had won 740 of the 1,235 delegates that had been selected, or 60%. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama had a hair over 50% of the delegates, leading Hillary Clinton 965-951. Were reporters then talking about the Democratic contest “plodding on” as Obama “failed to land a knockout blow?” Of course not: they thought the contest was a thrilling one, because they liked both candidates.

Or consider 1992, when the Democratic presidential field was considered so weak that the candidates were called the “seven dwarves.” Bill Clinton, who we now know was a politician of genius, won that race. But as of early March 1992, Clinton was running behind “uncommitted” and, of the committed delegates, he had won just 57%. By early April, Clinton had 68% of the committed delegates (a much lower percentage if uncommitted delegates were counted) against some of the weakest competition ever: Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown. Republicans saw the Democrats as being in disarray:

Republicans were chortling over what they presented as a muddled Democratic race. Frederic V. Malek, the manager of President Bush’s campaign, asserted, “The clear message of the Democratic race is that the voters are not satisfied with any of the Democratic candidates in the field.”

So by historic standards, Romney is within the ballpark of what one would expect from a non-incumbent candidate who goes on to win his party’s nomination. Criticism of Romney’s performance generally centers on the idea that he is having trouble putting away a “weak field.” Perhaps that assessment is correct. But this year’s Republican candidates are at least as strong as the ones the party had in 2008, and certainly are stronger, collectively, than the Democratic candidates of 1992. And how about the Democrats of 2008? Was the group that Obama defeated–Joe Biden, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson, along with Mrs. Clinton–all that challenging?

In my opinion, Rick Santorum would be a weak general election candidate, but that does not mean that he isn’t a tough primary opponent. His strong showing this year is no fluke. If we compare Santorum to Barack Obama, Santorum is, in my view, a smarter guy, a better speaker and a far better debater, whose views are generally in tune with those of the Republican base, as Obama’s are with the Democratic base. The weaknesses that would dog Santorum in a general election for the most part aren’t weaknesses at all in Republican primaries. Gingrich, too, is a formidable candidate among Republican voters, and Ron Paul’s supporters would turn out for him no matter who else was in the race–sort of like Kucinich’s voters, only a lot more numerous. So, in the context of Republican primaries, I don’t think the candidates who are contending against Romney are anything like pushovers.

As Paul Mirengoff noted earlier this morning, it is foolish to believe that the voters who now prefer Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney are going to vote for Barack Obama in the fall. In demographic terms, the most notable aspect of Mitt Romney’s candidacy is that he has shown a consistent ability to attract upper-income voters, a key constituency that the Democrats dominated in 2008. In November, if he is the nominee, Romney’s ability to win votes from uncommitted, upper-income voters will be far more significant than the fact that he was the second or third choice for the nomination among rural social conservatives.

So, as we look ahead to the rest of the primary season, I’m not seeing any reason for Republicans to panic.