Super Tuesday was, as I wrote late last night, a good day for Mitt Romney. Yes, his win in Ohio was narrow given his spending edge over Rick Santorum there; yes, his win in Virginia owed in large part to other candidates’ failure to make the ballot; yes, Massachusetts and Vermont are blue states he wouldn’t carry in a general election. But in a tight race, each victory counts and each delegate in the fold is another step closer to the nomination. Winning Ohio and Virginia is better than not winning them, and Romney won them. It was a good day for him.
That said, Romney didn’t do well enough Tuesday to shake the notion that he’s a weak front-runner. Here’s what I mean:
At this point, 22 states have held their primaries or caucuses. By this time next week, we’ll be past the halfway point. As the front-runner with apparent momentum, Romney ought to be pulling away from the pack. As the candidate touted as having the best chance to beat Barack Obama in the general election, he really ought to be pulling away from the pack in swing states.
About that last “ought to” …
The above graph depicts the average share of the vote in swing states won by Romney and “Santorum + Gingrich” as the primary season has progressed. So, for clarity’s sake: We start with the results in Iowa, then average those results with the ones in New Hampshire to get “thru NH”; then we average the results in Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida to get “thru FL”; and so on. The idea is to see both cumulative strength and momentum in the race. (Note: Even though Virginia is considered a swing state, I did not include its results because they would skew the picture since Santorum and Gingrich failed to make the ballot there.)
After an underwhelming performance in Iowa relative to the other two, Romney picked up momentum in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada, opening up an average lead of 7 percentage points over Santorum + Gingrich. That gap narrowed considerably after Colorado. With Ohio’s results now factored in, Santorum + Gingrich have performed better on average in swing states than Romney, by 1 percentage point. They have been better on average, and they’ve only gotten stronger during the past few weeks.
There weren’t enough solidly red states before yesterday to create a meaningful graph for them; I’ll only state for the record that Santorum + Gingrich have an average take in those nine red states of 50.8 percent to Romney’s 33.3 percent. What is interesting to note, however, is what the trend looks like in blue states:
Minnesota was part of Santorum’s trifecta of Feb. 7 wins. But Maine and Michigan in particular were considered signals that Romney had righted the ship. For the purposes of November, what’s the value of righting the ship in states the Republican nominee is likely to lose anyway? (Note: I’ll stipulate that Michigan could be considered a swing state as well, but I derived my definitions of swing, red and blue states from the consensus among the forecasters at Real Clear Politics, Purple Strategies, Gallup and 270ToWin.com.)
I caution against reading too much into these graphs, but I do think they offer a visual depiction of why so many Republicans are nervous about the continued fragility of Mitt Romney as a front-runner.
– By Kyle Wingfield