Romney the Weak. The Politically Tone Deaf. The Millionaire Who Can’t Connect. The former Massachusetts governor’s character, campaign strategy, campaign staff, and political message are all being offered as reasons for why he can’t seem to “close the deal” in the drawn-out presidential nominating contest. After all, Sen. John McCain wrapped up the 2008 Republican nomination in early February. What has Romney done wrong? Perhaps nothing. The main reason the primary continues to drag on has more to do with changes to the nomination rules and voting calendar this year than with Romney himself.
It’s hard to argue that Romney is “weaker” than McCain. Like Romney, McCain lost the first nominating state, Iowa, to a social conservative (former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee). Back in 2008, a sizable chunk of Republican voters were also dissatisfied with John McCain. There was an irate “anyone-but-McCain faction” that could not forgive the senator his many conservative heresies that included his vote against the George W. Bush tax cuts; his efforts to end interrogation techniques he considered torture; his championing of restrictions on campaign financing that conservatives said violated free speech, and his rocky relationship with evangelical leaders. Many Republican voters said they’d rather stay home on election day than vote for the self-styled “maverick.” Yet Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum voters generally say they will vote for the eventual Republican nominee, whoever he is, because their top goal is to replace President Barack Obama.
What has changed is the primary calendar. Four years ago, fully 80 per cent of the Republican delegates were chosen before March—as compared to only 13 per cent this year, notes Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System. In 2008, the so-called “Super Tuesday,” the biggest voting night of the primary season, took place an entire month earlier—on Feb. 5, compared to March 6 this year. In addition, there were 21 contests that night in 2008, including big, delegate-rich states such as New York, New Jersey, and California—while this year’s Super Tuesday included only 10.
And back then, many of the contests were “winner-take-all” states. That meant that the second-place finisher did not receive delegates and could be more quickly eliminated. “What you had in 2008 was McCain, who was not popular among the Republican base, but because of winner-take-all rules, front-loading, and his victory in South Carolina, there was not much time for people to say, ‘My goodness, he’s not winning!’ ” Kamarck told Maclean’s.
Like Romney, McCain won the early state of New Hampshire. Unlike Romney, however, he also narrowly won South Carolina—McCain had the benefit of being a former war hero in a heavily military state. But his early victories, coupled with narrow wins in winner-take-all states, added up to a decisive delegate lead in little more than a month. This year, it is taking longer by design. “What nobody has quite grasped is that it’s not just a different year—it’s a different campaign season with everything being back-loaded more,” says Kamarck.
If this year’s campaign had been run under the same rules and the same calendar as the 2008 primary, Romney would not look so weak. Rather than having twice as many delegates as Santorum, as he does now, it is conceivable, judging by his poll numbers in the states that held votes on Super Tuesday in 2008, he’d have at least three, possibly four times as many. Likewise, if McCain had run under this year’s rules, “We would be at least as far from a conclusion as we are now with Romney,” says Andrew Busch, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College who specializes in presidential primary politics.
This year’s primary is slower by design—yet the pace is being blamed on Romney, a storyline that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy as donors and potential endorsers hang back. “It’s an interesting psychological effect,” says Kamarck, a Democrat. “The delegate count does in fact shape the coverage. People are coming up with all kinds of reasons for his weakness. But it’s really overblown.”
Some Republicans are complaining that the drawn-out primary is hurting the eventual nominee and the party, and that they’d like to turn their efforts to defeating Obama. But in 2008, many were bemoaning the quick primary win by McCain as leading to a nominee who was not fully embraced by the party, but who’d missed the chance for state-by-state campaigning and organizing enjoyed by the Democrats as the Obama versus Hillary Clinton battle dragged on until June.
“We think it’s working well for the Republicans,” says Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a voting reform advocacy group. The new process allows more voters in more states to have their say, he says. And it forces the eventual nominee to seek the support of various factions of the Republican party, including social conservatives and economic conservatives, and would ultimately help unite the party, he predicts. “The McCain early knockouts shortchanged things and didn’t allow that conversation to happen. Then he grasped [for conservative support] with the Sarah Palin pick,” says Richie.
Like Obama in 2008, this year’s crop of candidates have honed their campaigns in the long fight. “Both Romney and Santorum are stronger candidates, better on the stump, and gave sharper messages than they did when the voting began,” says Busch.
But Richie cautions against assuming that Romney would have come out as far ahead as McCain if he had faced the same voting calendar and winner-take-all rules as in 2008. Super Tuesday was held in February that year, and this year Santorum was surging in national polls in February and might have performed better under the old rules. Another is that Romney tends to perform well in states where he has spent a great deal of money, and it would be difficult for him to spend heavily in all 21 states that voted on Super Tuesday in 2008. “It’s an utter wild card what would have happened,” Richie says.
The rule changes came about in response to efforts by individual states to move their primaries earlier and earlier into the process. Already, the race was starting in the first days of January. Any earlier and some primaries could have been pushed into the Christmas— or even Thanksgiving—holiday season. So the national party organizations (which control the nominating conventions) offered incentives to states (which set their own primary dates and rules) to hold their contests later in the year: Democrats offered extra delegates, while Republicans restricted winner-take-all delegate allocation to only the later-voting states, allowing them to become higher-stakes prizes in the contest. States that wanted to hold their votes earlier had to settle for proportional representation allocation of delegates.
Another structural change in the landscape since 2008 has been the rise of the “super PACs”—the political action committees that can now accept unlimited contributions from donors and can make unlimited expenditures in support of candidates and allow those like Santorum and Newt Gingrich to stay in the race longer.
According to the delegate math, it is almost impossible for either Santorum or Gingrich to catch up to or exceed Romney’s delegate totals. Romney is expected to perform well in primaries in the coming weeks as large, moderate East Coast states begin casting ballots. (There is some squishiness in the delegate tallies because some delegates have the power to change their allegiance.) But there remains a chance that no one candidate could emerge with a clear majority of delegates. In that case, the nominating convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August would become more than a mere formality.
It remains to be seen whether Republicans will keep their rule changes. “If the process ends in some sort of chaos at the convention or it ends with the nominee being wounded beyond repair because the campaign became increasingly bitter, then they might say, ‘Let’s get this over with sooner,’ ” says Busch. “Political parties are always trying to fix whatever the most recent problem was.”