After Super Tuesday: How damaged is Mitt Romney to run against Obama?

After Super Tuesday: The assumption is that Mitt Romney damages himself and the GOP as he continues to battle Santorum and others to the nomination. That's true, but only in part. The grueling primary process has also strengthened him. Just as it strengthened Obama in 2008.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney waves with his wife Ann at his Super Tuesday primary election night rally in Boston March 6. He's spending money rapidly, but he also has a super PAC to help him.

Despite Mitt Romney’s victories, most recently his six wins on Super Tuesday, pundits depict him as gravely wounded. Democratic strategist Robert Shrum crows that the bitter GOP battle has so hurt the former Massachusetts governor that it renders the nomination “increasingly worthless” for the general election – and Republicans worry that he may be right.

Both sides should reserve judgment. There has been political bloodshed, of course, but the scars will be less severe and long-lasting than Democrats hope and Republicans fear.

Let’s start by gauging the damage to date.

As of last month, the Romney campaign’s outlays had already topped $55 million, and he’s lately been spending money twice as fast as he’s been taking it in. He will have to work hard to refill his war chest since many of his donors have already given the legal limit for the nomination campaign.

What’s more, much of the money has gone to activities focusing on the primaries and caucuses. These activities – such as getting voters to the polls on primary days – will do the GOP little good in the general election. Meanwhile, President Obama faces no serious opposition for the Democratic nomination, so his organization has already been gearing up for November.

Nomination campaigns require a special kind of issue strategy. In the 1990s, Richard Nixon famously wrote  to Republican Sen. Robert Dole about how one gets to the White House.

“You have to run as far as you can to the right because that’s where 40 percent of the people who decide the nomination are. And to get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle, because only about 4 percent of the nation’s voters are on the extreme right wing.” Mr. Dole won the nomination in 1996, but lost in the general election to incumbent Bill Clinton.

The GOP leans even more to the right today, so the candidates have had to take some very conservative positions, especially on social issues and immigration.

Party moderates argue that these stands could keep the nominee from winning Democratic and independent votes, and alienate women and Latinos. For instance, the debate over contraception and the verbal attack on a female law student by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh are the kinds of issues that can turn off women.

In the YouTube age, however, it’s hard to run back to the middle, since it’s easy for an opponent to juxtapose video clips of the old and new positions.

Two years ago in California, Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman switched from a hard line on immigration in the primary campaign to a pro-immigration message afterward. The shift enabled Democrats to portray her as unprincipled and cynical. A Whitmanesque pivot would be an especially bad move for Mr. Romney, who is already vulnerable to charges of flip-flopping.

The nomination campaign has exposed other Romney weaknesses as well. In unstructured situations, he makes gaffes, such as his comment that he’s “not concerned about the very poor.” His idea of connecting to the working class is to brag that he knows NASCAR team owners. And though he gamely tries to speak the conservative language, he doesn’t quite get it. (People on the right don’t say that they’re “severely conservative.”) It’s rather like Tony Curtis playing an English knight with a Brooklyn accent: “Yonda lies da kingdom of my faddah!”

Romney’s faults have provided his GOP foes with material for attack ads. And in turn, he and his supporters fired barrages of their own negative spots. He has come out ahead in the state and delegate counts of the primaries, but some polls suggest that the crossfire has driven up his unfavorability ratings with the general public. People are seeing a lot of attacks on Romney, and attacks by Romney. Either way, Romney looks bad.

But before Republicans give up on winning the White House, they should ponder the drawn-out 2008 Democratic primary campaign that pitted then-Senators Barack Obama against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In March of that year, ABC correspondent Jake Tapper reported: “The notion that the current tough tone could hurt the party against Republican Senator John McCain is a real concern among top Democrats. A new poll indicates that 28 percent of Clinton supporters say they would vote for McCain over Obama should she not get the nomination. Nineteen percent of Obama supporters say they’d go for McCain over Clinton.”

Despite the hard feelings of the nomination contest, Clinton supporters ended up voting for Obama in the fall. So did a majority of independents. Ms. Clinton’s criticisms and Mr. Obama’s missteps just did not matter much in the end.

“I think it is a lot like the Bill Clinton draft records in 1992,” Democratic consultant Shrum told National Journal at the time. “It came out and it hurt him some in the primaries, along with the other stuff, but by the time of the general election people just dismissed it and said this election is about my job, about health care, and a whole set of other issues.”

Similarly, the attacks on Romney by Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum may wind up being the political equivalent of vaccinations. When the Democrats make similar charges in the fall, they will have less impact because they will be old news.

But what about Romney’s inability to attract evangelicals – important base voters who back Santorum and Gingrich? Some of them may stay home rather than vote for Romney, and that would matter in a tight race against Obama. However, their antipathy for the president is so great, that they are more likely to swallow their misgivings and swing behind Romney in the end.

As for campaign finances, Romney’s problems will be much less daunting than they would have been in the past. In the 1996 presidential campaign, a tough nomination contest depleted Sen. Dole’s treasury, forcing his campaign to go dark for several months as the Clinton reelection effort stepped up its attacks on him. There is no chance that Romney will meet that fate. Even if his own campaign funds run low, the pro-Romney super PAC faces no contribution caps and can make unlimited independent expenditures.

In some ways, the grueling primary process has actually been an asset to Romney. Twenty debates have forced him to hone his style, and he does much better on stage than he did in 2008.

In this respect, he’s much like Obama in 2008. On the night Obama clinched the nomination, he thanked Hillary Clinton for making him a better candidate. He was trying to be diplomatic, but whether or not he actually meant it, he was speaking the truth.

Romney is hardly a cinch to beat Obama in November. Good economic news and foreign policy triumphs could seal the president’s reelection. But he is a stronger candidate than he would have been if he had coasted to the nomination.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.

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