It may be true that you can’t buy love, but Mitt Romney has proved that in politics you can buy enough distaste for your opponent that the outcome is the same.
In Arizona, where Romney won comfortably, he outspent his closest competitor, Rick Santorum, twelve to one. In Michigan Romney outspent Santorum two to one. Michigan was too close to call for more than two hours after the polls closed. Eventually Romney was declared the winner. But while he edged Santorum by a few points in the total vote—with 92 percent of the votes counted, Romney was up forty-one to thirty-eight—he comes away from the night a loser. As of 10:30 pm, when the networks had just called Michigan for Romney, Santorum was ahead of Romney in nine of the state’s fourteen Congressional districts. The winner of each Congressional district will be awarded its two delegates, with only two at large delegates going to Romney for winning the statewide vote. The result? Thanks to the way their votes are distributed, Santorum could actually take more delegates from Michigan’s primary than Romney. Whatever the precise count ends up being, it’s fair to basically call the results a tie.
But a tie is really a loss for Romney. Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father was the governor, and he was expected to easily win the state. By letting Santorum get ahead of him in Michigan polls last week, Romney had already lost. Previously when one of Romney’s opponents passed him in a poll or beat him in a contest I thought the media overstated the extent to which this showed Romney’s weakness. Polls are volatile and campaigns have ups and downs. But entering a stretch of states that are especially congenial to Romney, it was finally time for him to demonstrate that he could unite Republicans—at least outside the South—behind his candidacy. If so many Michigan voters were so lukewarm to Romney—an impression reinforced by a series of underwhelming events in the state this past week—then the widespread aversion to him is undeniable.
As David Weigel noted in Slate on Monday, until Santorum’s surge, “No one had bested Romney in [statewide] polls since 2009. Santorum adviser John Brabender has said his candidate ‘already won’ here, because he’s forcing Romney to hustle in the place where he was born.” Brabender is not entirely correct. Santorum won’t become the Republican nominee merely by proving how unenthusiastic Romney’s support is. The nominee will be decided by delegates. Thanks to Arizona, Romney will come away from Tuesday’s primaries with far more delegates than Santorum. But it’s true that Santorum can call his result in Michigan a partial success, while for Romney the primary represents a near-total failure.