On Mitt Romney’s victory in Florida

So Romney now looks a certainty to be the Republican candidate against Barack Obama in November, after yesterday’s win in conservative Florida put paid to the claim that he was not really conservative enough to win the nomination. Sure, he did so mainly by outspending Newt Gingrich in Florida by a huge amount, helpfully tabulated by the Washington Post here:

As of Jan. 29, Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future, the affiliated Romney super PAC, had spent $15.6 million on ads in Florida as compared to $3.29 million disbursed by Gingrich’s campaign and the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future super PAC.

That’s small consolation to Gingrich, given that big spending on television advertising is the name of the game from now on :

The presidential primary race will now move from places like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — all small(ish) states where retail politics is the coin of the realm — into states that, like Florida, have large populations, diverse electorates and where television is king….Think Ohio, Michigan, Arizona and so on and so forth.

That means that unless Gingrich can begin to raise money at a much faster clip or his super PAC can match the spending of Romney’s super PAC spending, he’s likely to find himself fighting the same, losing fight in the states and weeks to come.

Translation: a PAC is a Political Action Committee, an “independent” fund raising vehicle for US political candidates. A Super PAC is… well, as with almost everything else in US politics, Scoop is reliant on Stephen Colbert for the inside story. As is the rest of America, apparently.

For the record here’s the background on Super PACs, which seem to be yet another symptom of the US higher courts’ recent readiness to pander to wealth and influence:

The super PACs were made possible by two judicial decisions. First the U.S. Supreme Court held in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that government may not prohibit unions and corporations from making independent expenditures about politics. Soon after, in Speechnow.org v. FEC, the Federal Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that contributions to groups that only make independent expenditures could not be limited. Super PACs are not allowed to coordinate directly with candidates or political parties since they are “independent”. However, a candidate may talk to his associated super PAC via the media.

So where does that leave the presidential contest? Almost tied, and harder for Obama to win than if his opponent were a Gingrich or a Ron Paul or whoever else ended up being the “Anyone but Romney” candidate. On paper, the campaign looks like the 2004 campaign in reverse – with Obama as the divisive incumbent and Romney in the John Kerry role as the perceived flip-flopper. Plus the added factor, in Romney’s case, of being seen to be the candidate of the ultra-wealthy 1%.

The flip-flopper charge may well stick. Certainly, Obama’s team can find plenty of ammunition for attack ads in the contradictory positions that Romney has taken. Robert Creamer has helpfully tabulated some of them.

As in… Romney was pro-choice on abortion until he became anti-choice, passed a healthcare law in Massachusetts while governor before attacking Obama’s almost identical “Obamacare” version, supported the extension of the assault weapons ban but now opposes it, supported the financial stimulus plan but now says he opposed it, said that he believed human activity was contributing to global warming but now doubts whether we know for sure, supported the legislative measures taken to resolve the sub prime crisis as “the right thing to do” but now says he opposed them etc etc. Not for nothing did his former rival Jon Huntsman describe Romney last year as being “ a perfectly lubricated weathervane on the important issues of the day…”

Moreover, the guy comes across as a complete idiot when speaking off the cuff. This is someone who last year described his $374,000 side income from speaking fees as being “not very much”. Only hours after yesterday’s win in Florida, Romney tried on CNN to bond with middle class voters in remarkably clumsy fashion, by saying: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Or about the very rich who, presumably, can look after themselves. And furthermore:

“The challenge right now — we will hear from the Democrat party is the plight of the poor,” Romney responded, after repeating that he would fix any holes in the safety net. “It’s not good being poor and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor… My focus is on middle income Americans… In any political campaign, he said, “you can choose where to focus. You can focus on the rich — that’s not my focus. You can focus on the very poor — that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle-income Americans.”

Right. Given the rate at which the middle class is sliding into poverty, this was an extremely awkward way of bonding with them. From Romney’s vantage point, as one commenter noted, the entire 99% of Americans probably look “very poor.” And he’s making a hand-on-heart promise to fix any holes in the welfare safety net? Hardly credible, given the zeal with which the Republicans have been trying to shred it. As Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent commented:

Romney seems to have meant that the “very poor” have a safety net while the middle class doesn’t, and that the latter will be the focus of his campaign. But this is another sign of his apparent inability to avoid saying things that play perfectly into the Democratic strategy of painting him as the candidate of the one percent. (His recent claim that he likes to be able to “fire people” who provide services to him is a case in point.) If this tone deafness isn’t giving Republicans pause about Romney, it’s hard to know what would.

Regardless, as Democratic Party analyst William Galston points out in the latest New Republic, Obama currently looks vulnerable:

Consider a January 26 Quinnipiac survey of the Florida electorate, beginning with President Obama’s standing in a state he carried by 3 points (51-48) in 2008. Forty-six percent of registered Florida voters approve of the way Obama is handling his job, while 52 percent disapprove. Forty-seven percent believe that he deserves to be re-elected, while 49 percent do not.

The contours of this terrain, Galston concludes, look perilous for the President, especially given Florida’s perennial status as a key swing state. The Florida pattern is not markedly different from the situation nationwide. An average of major national surveys conducted in January gives Obama a modest 2.3 point edge over Romney.

While the fractious Republican nominating process is alleged to have badly damaged Romney, there is little conclusive evidence of that being so. At the very worst, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found that Romney’s unfavourable ratings among independent voters had increased by 20 points over the past two months, but that still leaves Obama currently leading Romney nationwide by only 8 points among that important bloc. Hardly an impossible gap to bridge, once the campaign proper kicks in.
Finally, and in one important respect, we could be heading for a re-run of the last presidential election. In 2008, John McCain was also suspected by elements in the Republican Party of not being a true conservative – and so, disastrously, chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in order to mobilise the religious right. This year, Romney will be under the same pressure.

If he does start being bruised by the perception that he is a flip-flopper, he may seek to “unite” the Republican Party by choosing an extremist as his running mate – and in some respects, Rick Santorum’s working class conservatism probably does look like a useful balance to Romney’s snooty elitism. As with Palin though, the prospect of Rick Santorum being a heartbeat away from presidential power will scare off many, many voters, especially among independents, and female voters.

So Romney could be damned, either way. Because if he doesn’t pick someone like Santorum as his running mate, he risks the emergence of a hyper-conservative third party candidate on the right who would split the anti-Obama vote, just as Ross Perot helped to sink Bush Senior in 1994. Buying the Florida election – and thereby, the nomination – might have been the easy bit, for Mitt.


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