Despite wins in six Super Tuesday states, including a narrow victory in Ohio, Mitt Romney will continue to face a tough fight for the GOP nomination.
But if he does eventually secure the nomination, an outcome that is far from certain, two drastically different visions for his general-election prospects are developing.
In the first scenario, Mitt Romney’s struggle at “sealing the deal” (the official tagline of the 2012 race) presages doom in the general election. If he’s huffing and puffing to beat relatively weak candidates such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, how can he beat an incumbent president?
Especially worrisome is the prospect that Romney seems to have trouble wooing blue-collar workers in Rust Belt states — the stomping ground of Santorum supporters who don’t connect with either Romney’s region (New England), his wealth (massive), his ideology (moderate) or his record (RomneyCare).
As evidence, these critics point to results like those from Ohio, where a Fox News exit poll suggested that Santorum beat Romney by 18 percent among the “very conservative” and by 11 percent with those making $50,000 to $99,000 a year. This concern has merit.
One of the keys to Obama’s general-election win in 2008 was superior grassroots enthusiasm and historic social media organization that turned one supporter into many.
After all, it takes a lot to get people to care enough to evangelize for a candidate, and Romney hasn’t shown any uncanny ability to do that.
The second scenario, however, bodes much better for Romney’s hypothetical general-election hopes.
Race watchers in this camp point to the 2008 Democratic primary and Obama’s continual failure to win over women and working-class Democrats, before succeeding wildly with them in the general election.
According to CNN exit polls of the 2008 Ohio primary, Hillary Clinton beat Obama by 16 percent among women. Critics of Obama’s electability waxed about how these voters might abandon him in the general election or just plain-old sullenly stay home. Those concerns only escalated once the GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), picked a woman, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to be his vice-presidential candidate.
But when the general election rolled around in Ohio, women picked Obama over McCain by 8 percent — a 24 percent turnaround from the primaries.
As Daily Beast columnist Kirsten Powers noted on Fox News Tuesday night:
“All these women who loved Hillary weren’t going to turn out to vote, and it never came to fruition. When it comes down to it, right now they [Republican voters] get to choose. They get Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney. That’s a very different choice than Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. Trust me, it will become a very stark contrast.”
The same holds true for blue-collar voters, whom Obama failed to inspire in the 2008 primaries. Let’s use Ohio for comparison again. According to CNN exit polls taken then, Hillary beat Obama by 23 percent among those making $15,000 to $30,000 a year, by 12 percent among those making $30,000 to $50,000, and by 10 percent among those earning $50,000 to $75,000.
In short, Obama was routed among working-class voters.
But when the general election rolled around, he beat McCain among these groups by 24 percent, 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
In short, Obama was able to turn an underwhelming primary performance in a key battleground into a general-election upset (and for all his struggles, Romney at least eked out an Ohio win Tuesday night).
Nationally, we saw the same general-election phenomenon in state after state. The guy who wasn’t supposed to be able to connect with the working class won three of four middle-income categories ($15,000 to $30,000, $30,000 to $50,000, and $75,000 to $100,000).
There’s nothing to suggest Romney couldn’t do the same.
The consensus in 2008 was that Obama successfully wooed the Rust Belt working class in the general election only because the economy was in the tank. His success in the general may have had little to do with this group connecting with him on a personal level.
Romney has the same potential. If the economy is in the tank, that could persuade blue-collar voters to come out in force for him in the fall — even if they don’t connect with him personally.
Conservatives who have failed to warm to Romney, as well as the media, which is desperate for drama in the race, have both pushed the narrative that the presumptive GOP nominee can’t generate sufficient enthusiasm in a general election.
Those doubts about Romney’s November electability might be overblown, but with the GOP front-runner failing to deliver a knockout punch on Super Tuesday, they won’t disappear.