The results from today’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan will do more than just tell us who Republican voters in each state prefer to be the nominee. The results will also provide us a glimpse as to how the race may unfold moving forward.
The race to watch is in Michigan, where both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have been campaigning extensively for weeks. Romney has a home field advantage in the state. Not only was Romney raised in the state, but his father is a former three-term governor there and his mother was once the Republican nominee for the United States Senate. Santorum doesn’t have any Michigan ties, but he relates to blue-collar workers as well as the state’s social conservatives.
Romney is expected to win Arizona, a winner-take-all state that Santorum has not has not focused on or spent much money in. The Michigan contest is expected to be a nail-biter despite Romney’s deep roots in the state. It is also conceivable that both Romney and Santorum could win tonight. One candidate could win the popular vote, while the other wins more delegates.
That doesn’t lessen the value of the results from Michigan, but it does mean that that what happens there will do more to shape the race moving forward than anything else. Below are two scenarios that could play out. One focuses on how wins in Arizona and Michigan could put Romney well on his way to the Republican nomination. The other possible scenario involves Romney continuing to struggle. Both are plausible, but the results from today’s contests could provide an indication as to what scenario is more likely to happen.
Scenario One: Romney Actually Becomes Inevitable Nominee
The only way that Romney can once again become the inevitable nominee is if he stops losing. Already twice in this campaign, it looked as if Romney had secured the nomination. In early January, he was riding high after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. He saw his Iowa win vanish after the vote was certified. Two days later Newt Gingrich won South Carolina by a large margin. Romney recovered and had impressive wins in Florida and Nevada, then got thumped by Santorum in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.
If Romney wants to start the process of securing the nomination, he must start by securing wins in Arizona and Michigan. He also needs to claim more delegates in Michigan than Santorum. If he can do that, he needs to follow it up by winning the Washington caucuses that follow on March 3rd. That would give Romney three victories leading into Super Tuesday, but more importantly, it would limit any Santorum momentum.
Winning Arizona, Michigan, and Washington would create some much-needed momentum for Romney, especially since Super Tuesday is not all that favorable to Romney. He should be able to easily secure victories in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia, but it’s the other seven states that are problematic. For Romney to essentially begin locking up the nomination, he must win Ohio. Ohio is a battleground state, a loss there would be a crippling blow to his campaign. Unlike in today’s contests, Romney is not going to have the luxury of focusing on just one state at a time after this ponit. Romney also must prove that he can win a southern state. His only options to do that are in Oklahoma or Tennessee.
Romney doesn’t need to be perfect on Super Tuesday, but he has to be careful where and who he loses to. For example, Romney can lose to Gingrich in Georgia since it’s Gingrich’s home state. He can also lose states like Alaska, North Dakota, and Idaho so long as he loses them to Ron Paul, not Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.
Romney needs a resounding victory tonight because he needs to weaken Santorum, who is leading in polls in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. For Romney to emerge as the eventual nominee, he has to keep Santorum out of the win column, and only lose to Gingrich in Georgia. It’s hard to imagine Romney winning both Oklahoma and Tennessee, but momentum has been one of the biggest factors in the race thus far, and with it, wins in those states could be possible.
Scenario Two: Two-person race between Romney and Santorum.
There is no doubt that Romney will do well in tonight’s contests in Arizona and Michigan, but it may be difficult for him to prevent Santorum form picking up an equal amount of delegates in Michigan, which would be seen as a push by some. That outcome may also be seen as a victory for Santorum due to Romney’s deep roots in Michigan.
Washington could also be problematic for Romney. The state legislature there just recently legalized gay marriage, which means that the political climate might favor Santorum. Any combination of either Santorum winning Michigan, fighting to a tie in Michigan, or winning Washington should give Santorum a nice bump heading into Super Tuesday.
Santorum is currently leading in the polls in Ohio, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Those three states make up nearly 40 percent of the delegates available on Super Tuesday. If Santorum can create some momentum in Michigan or Washington, he should be able to hold on to his lead in those states, which would be devastating to Romney.
States such as Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota are not as significant, but are not irrelevant either. Ron Paul may be able to get a victory in Alaska or Idaho, but North Dakota could be favorable for Santorum. Gingrich doesn’t seem to be much of a factor except in the south, and his ability to win outside of Georgia will be limited if Santorum doesn’t stumble heading into Super Tuesday.
It is entirely possible that Santorum could rack up wins in Tennessee and Oklahoma, while severely wounding Romney by winning Ohio. Ron Paul may win a state but in the overall scheme of things he’s still a non-factor. Gingrich seems well positioned to win his home state unless Santorum pulls off an upset and wins big in Michigan. Under that scenario, Santorum many challenge Gingrich there. Romney could also be hurt if Gingrich pushes him to third place in states like Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee. The narrative that Romney can’t win southern states would be very damaging. If he can’t win Ohio or a southern state on Super Tuesday, his campaign would be in serious trouble.
Right now, it doesn’t seem like Gingrich is much of a factor outside of Georgia. If Santorum underperforms tonight and in Washington on Saturday, there may be an opening for Gingrich in Oklahoma and Tennessee, but that also would increase Romney’s chances there. With Gingrich’s Super PAC now beginning to place ads in multiple states, he will be a much bigger factor. However, if Santorum gets some additional momentum, it seems unlikely that Gingrich would be able to overcome him in the week between now and Super Tuesday.
Either Romney is going to emerge from Arizona and Michigan with some serious momentum, or Santorum is going to continue to be a thorn in his side and a serious contender. The decision by Gingrich and Paul not to compete in either contest might prevent them from taking a loss, but it also means it’s nearly impossible for them to gain much momentum before Super Tuesday.
If Romney is going to be tripped up, it’s going to happen on Super Tuesday. There probably isn’t going to be any sort of major defeat that will send Romney home. Instead, it’s going to continue a narrative that Romney just can’t close the deal, especially in important swing states. It’s these swing states that the Republican nominee needs to win to do well in this fall.
The other narrative that could develop on Super Tuesday is the lack of appeal for Romney in the South. If Romney can’t win a southern state on Super Tuesday, it will continue the narrative that was set when Gingrich won South Carolina. Both narratives would be bad for the Romney campaign.