February 10, 2012        A publication of Thursday Review, copyright 2008

Rick Santorum's three-state sweep of the primaries and caucuses in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado point to an inescapable fact for the Republican presidential race: the GOP contest has quickly, perhaps inevitably, turned into asymmetrical combat.

The signs were already there: the near total sweep of South Carolina by Newt Gingrich weeks ago--which was largely explained away as the result of top-notch debate performances by Gingrich coupled with poor-to-middling responses from Mitt Romney--followed by closer, more careful readings of the Florida results.

Florida, it was widely assumed, was Romney's comeback. The former Massachusetts governor had been to the abyss, stared into the dark depths, and had responded with ferocious debate showings in Tampa and Jacksonville, accompanied by a ten-day hurricane of negative advertising deployed across Florida's complex TV markets. By some estimates ninety percent of the ads purchased by Romney or his Super PAC attacked Gingrich directly. Romney won easily, took the entire stack of Sunshine State's 50 delegates (winner-take-all!) and downsized Gingrich. In one masterstroke Romney had reinvented his campaign and disarmed his chief rival.

Well, not so fast. Careful readings of the county by county results in South Carolina and Florida showed something dangerous for Romney: a persistent reluctance by non-city, non-suburb Republicans to warm to Romney's image of himself as a consistent conservative and a natural heir to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

And the much-trumpeted and much-discussed Gingrich surge and decline obscured the background danger for Romney: Rick Santorum was still there, somewhere in the heartland, selling his own message of conservatism, and that message, coded slightly, was simple: Santorum is Gingrich without the baggage.

So once again Mitt Romney seems to have reached the glass ceiling. And though Santorum's three-state win doesn't equal disaster for Romney--or for Gingrich, for that matter--it illustrates the cultural and social complexity which Romney faces for the foreseeable future.

Despite a constant and almost comical drumbeat by Romney to define himself as the true conservative among the four remaining candidates, the former Bay State governor seems unable to decouple from the multiple images of moderation, compromise, and plasticity--in short, a candidate who will say or do anything in his quest for the Presidency. During his speech to the delegates at this week's CPAC convention in Washington, D.C., Romney inserted the word conservative some 50 times, describing himself at one point--in a last-second ad lib to the prepared text--as "severely conservative" while governor of Massachusetts.

Four years ago, at the same CPAC conference Romney was applauded wildly by the conservative faithful, attendees who then viewed McCain--not Romney--as the interloper and pretender. But much can change.

Fast-forward to January 2012: in Florida, where Romney won big, the danger signs were evident. A simple glance at the county-by-county totals indicate clearly the level of the disconnect. In what I will call loosely "Huckabee Country," Romney suffers mighty numerical defeats.

In the Sunshine State's more socially and culturally conservative panhandle and northeast, Gingrich won all but three counties (Bay, Leon and Okaloosa), and of those three, all but liberal Leon County were squeakers. At the northeast axis point, Romney won Duval County (Jacksonville) by only one percent. Out of more than 86,000 votes cast in Duval, Romney won by just over a thousand votes.

A look back at South Carolina produces and even more dramatic danger for Romney: Romney lost nearly the entire state except for the heavy population areas, Richland County, Charleston County and Beaufort. In some counties near Rock Hill (Lancaster, York and Chester Counties, to name a few) Santorum placed second, ahead of Romney. Romney won big in only two counties, Beaufort (Hilton Head) and Richland (Columbia). In Charleston his margin was relatively narrow.

Rewind the tape further. A quick look at Iowa produces similar problems for Romney. Though Romney won easily in three of the population centers--Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Davenport--Santorum swept everything but the dozen or so counties won by Ron Paul. Santorum won in Sioux City, and Romney's victories in some of his other win-column counties, such as Fremont, Plymouth, Pottawattamie and Jones, were close or squeakers. In some of Ron Paul's best counties--Washington, Jefferson, Mitchell and Van Buren, for example--Romney finished third or fourth.

With the exception of New Hampshire, where Jon Huntsman still played a key role in drawing support away from Romney, the combined non-Romney vote (which in this race translates into the anti-Romney vote) greatly exceeds the vote total in Romney's own column. In Florida this difference exceeded 100,000 votes. In South Carolina the difference was 256,000 votes--and almost all of that belonged to Gingrich and Santorum, since Ron Paul had little effect in the Palmetto State.

Political pros say forget about it: Romney wins where it counts, the population centers. But a similar argument has been made in the past when insurgencies threatened a presumed front-runner's status. Four years ago Barack Obama's challenge to Hillary Clinton's de facto position as nominee-apparent seemed, at first, a long shot. Even after John Edwards was no longer a factor and the contest began to heat up, the Clinton team continued to argue--reasonably so--that she was winning where it counted most, where the votes were.

As the primary and caucuses dragged on through Super Tuesday and beyond, Clinton resorted to complaining that Obama's wins were isolated to boutique locales and not consistent with a strategic view of the Electoral College. This linkage of primary success to electoral vote capacity was new to the traditionalists who say that one has little to do with the other. But tactical perceptions can quickly morph into important strategic patterns. Hillary Clinton's message was direct and unvarnished: I am winning where it counts, in places like Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Yet in the end Obama prevailed.

Mitt Romney now occupies a similar position to that of Clinton in 2008. Romney's wins in Florida and Nevada seem to vindicate the Clinton strategic view. Florida and Nevada are crucial swing states. But Santorum's consistent position in the background, coupled with continuing voter unease about Romney's squishiness on certain positions, mean that the marathon may still go to the underdog. It remains uncertain if that underdog is Gingrich or Santorum, but Santorum's recent victories may energize and channel some of that non-Romney sentiment into his column.

So the combat becomes asymmetrical. Across many of the red states and the swing states, Rick Santorum's appeal to Middle American voters through the language of family, community, core values and hard work--an especially effective connection with working class and middle class Republicans--trumps the managerial success stories and can-do messages of free enterprise projected by Mitt Romney. In debates and speeches Santorum often speaks of the Reagan Democrats, a strategic appeal which he intends as a device to preclude Romney as ambiguous, at best, and as a serial flip-flopper, at worst, while a Bay State chief executive.

If Romney prevails, it will be because he concentrates his message and his resources on the urban and suburban Republicans, those voters with less connection to the heartland language being received so enthusiastically by Christian conservatives and social conservatives. If Santorum wins--and that assumes that Gingrich eventually becomes irrelevant or drops out--it will be through his ability to galvanize middle class and working class Republicans in sufficient numbers to counterbalance Romney's appeal to those satisfied with capitalism as its own success story. In a recession, which viewpoint has the stronger appeal?

And for some GOP voters the cultural and social differences matter in the end, just as they did in the Democrat's family feud from four years ago when the fight was the beer and bowling alley Democrats versus the arugula and Belgian endive crowd. A similar divide can be seen in the current Republican contest, a brewing disconnection between party traditionalists (what Gingrich has been calling the elites) and party grassroots constituencies (Tea Party, southern based conservatives, Midwestern evangelicals, and other political segments of the GOP base).

Again, take a look back four years ago at the Huckabee belt, a wide swath of the heartland that was neither John McCain's nor Mitt Romney's by default. Huckabee won vast tracts of counties and parishes across Iowa, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Louisiana and Oklahoma. These same areas are Santorum country, and on the whole these voters have even less enthusiasm for Mitt Romney now than in 2008.

If anything can be measured by passion and frustration alone, this block of GOP voters now have more energy to channel and now occupy a much larger footprint on the electoral map. Four years ago there were seven so-called battleground states: Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Strategists and planners for both Democrats and Republicans now agree that the list of swing states has doubled.

Now, a closer look at Santorum's trifecta:

Rick Santorum's three-state victory on Tuesday was impressive for its power to shut out Romney in a western swing state and a Midwestern battleground state. Colorado was the bigger upset, but Santorum's dual wins in Minnesota and Missouri also indicate the severity of the cultural divide Republicans face.

In Colorado, Santorum won 40% of the total vote to Romney's 35%. Newt Gingrich landed in third place with 13% and Ron Paul close behind at 12%. Geographically, the former Pennsylvania senator swept three fourths of the state. But, in keeping with some of the patterns discussed above, Romney took some of the population centers, including Denver and its suburbs. Romney swept the counties around the capital city, including Arapahoe, Clear Creek, Douglas, Jefferson and Boulder. Romney also won in northwest Colorado, areas adjacent to Utah where the Mormon vote played a larger role.

But Santorum won his share of cities as well. He won easily in Larimer County (Ft. Collins), Weld County (Greeley), El Paso County (Colorado Springs) and Pueblo.

For Romney, the loss of Colorado inflicted a deeper more psychic damage to his game plan. Colorado should have been an easy win for Romney, but once again conservative distrust of Romney has perhaps limited his ability to rise above his glass ceiling even in what months ago was deemed a safe state.

Santorum's win in Missouri was somewhat more predictable. Mike Huckabee had rolled across much of the Show Me State back in 2008, losing to McCain by less than one percent. Like Colorado, Missouri is a swing state in the Electoral College math--and a crucial demonstration of a candidate's ability to move independents.

And despite the fact that the Missouri primary is non-binding (the actual delegate selection will take place at county caucuses on March 17), Santorum's clean sweep of every county gives him his best trophy so far. Neither Romney nor Gingrich nor Paul won a single county, and Santorum's vote total exceeded all other candidates combined. Further, Santorum beat Romney handily even in the cities, carrying the city of St. Louis by 45%, Cole County (Jefferson City) by 47%, and Springfield by 54%. And the little shining trophies atop the big trophy were Kansas City (Jackson County) where Santorum won by 49%, and St. Louis County--the suburban sprawl to the west of the city--where he won by 53%, pulling in nine thousand more votes than Romney out of roughly 33,000 votes cast.

Another telling danger for Romney: four years ago Romney had won Kansas City and the neighboring counties of Cass, Clay, Buchanan and Platt, battling both McCain and Huckabee. Now let's put the math side-by-side for the five counties, including Jackson:

Total votes for Romney

County 2008     2012
Buchanan 2216      1339
Platte 3109      832
Clay 6421      1538
Jackson 17452      6404
Cass 3324      834
Total: 32522      10947

I admit that there are other numbers which could be factored in: total vote turnout, disposition of one-time McCain or Huckabee supporters, and Santorum's presence campaigning on the ground in Missouri (as opposed to Romney's general absence while he worked in Nevada and Maine).

Nevertheless, the sharp decline in Romney's numbers in these counties signals a possible danger for the former Bay State governor in the months ahead. It also turns the argument back toward the strategic: is Rick Santorum exploiting a significant expansion of the Huckabee footprint, does this bode well for the GOP if Romney eventually becomes the nominee?

Minnesota was another prize for Santorum, where he won all but five counties statewide. Mitt Romney won not a single county, and even in the heavy population centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Santorum won easily. Four counties robbed Santorum of a total sweep of the state: Red Lake, Koochiching (International Falls), Benton and Blue Earth, places where Ron Paul's followers won the day. One additional county, Lincoln, was a dead even tie between Paul and Santorum.

In 2008 Mitt Romney had won Minnesota easily, carrying 41% of the state total. But Mike Huckabee was there was well, cutting his usual swath of territory and claiming 27 counties as his own, coming in a close third behind McCain. So not only had Romney lost a key state which was one of his early prizes four years ago, the cultural and social changes on that terrain had moved so dramatically to shut him out statewide.

In this asymmetrical battle, the Huckabee Belt has become the Santorum Belt. What this means for a Republican strategic plan remains unclear.

Copyright 2012, Thursday Review

Road Show is published each week by Thursday Review publications, copyright 2008