Does Santorum Hear the Music?

By Charlie Cook

April 10, 2012

Rick Santorum has every right to continue his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, just as Edward Kennedy did when he carried his fight against President Carter to the Democratic convention in 1980, and just as Hillary Rodham Clinton did through the last of the primaries four years ago. But Santorum’s right to persevere doesn’t preclude our right to say, “Put a fork in it; this thing is done.”

The Associated Press delegate count shows that Mitt Romney has won 655, or 59 percent of the delegates who have indicated a candidate preference. He needs to win 47 percent of those remaining to get the nomination. Santorum has won 278 delegates, or 25 percent of those who have indicated a preference. He would need to win a staggering 83 percent of the remaining delegates to reach the 1,144 necessary for the nomination. Obviously, that isn’t going to happen. The GOP nomination process is now more of a mop-up operation for Romney than a competition. Santorum will win some more delegates and a state here and there. But the former senator from Pennsylvania has no plausible path to 1,144.

For Romney and the Republican Party, this stage of the campaign didn’t come a minute too soon. The rehabilitation of the presumptive nominee and his party is long overdue. Ever since Congress began wrangling over the economic-stimulus and health care packages and since the tea party movement got its start, the Republican Party has detoured to the right. The GOP ventured into some of the more exotic reaches of conservative political thought, far, far away from the middle of the political spectrum, the area between the 40-yard lines where independent and swing voters live. Tea party supporters’ passion and energy only underscored the intensity of the movement. The end result has been that the Republican Party has turned inward.

The GOP’s 21 presidential debates, as well as the party’s rhetoric and policies in Washington and state capitals, have revealed an inward, self-absorbed focus. Republican officeholders are so obsessed with pleasing their party’s conservative base that they have virtually ignored how their overheated rhetoric might be interpreted by less-ideological independent and swing voters who, after all, are the ones who effectively decide general elections. If the GOP nominee won 100 percent of Republican voters, he would still lose the general election badly if he didn’t also win the support of a large slice of independent voters and close to 10 percent of Democrats.

The moment that really captured the candidates’ rightward lurch came during an August GOP debate in Iowa sponsored by Fox News. Conservative writer Byron York commented, “The deficit-cutting super committee is now getting to work. Democrats will demand that savings come from a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, maybe $3 in cuts for every $1 in higher taxes. Is there any ratio of cuts to taxes that you would accept? 3-to-1? 4-to-1? Or even 10-to-1?” Fox News’s Brett Baier followed up by asking each of the eight candidates, “Say you had a deal, a real spending-cuts deal, 10-to-1, as Byron said, spending cuts to tax increases. Speaker [Newt Gingrich], you’re already shaking your head. But who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Can you raise your hand if you feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-1 deal?” All eight raised their hands, to the audience’s thunderous applause.

My hunch remains that this will be a very close election. But it’s clear that we’re witnessing a pretty low point for the GOP and for Romney. Both have been pulled way to the right and need to scramble over the next seven months to get back into position for the general election.

Taken together, Gallup’s 16,037 interviews last month reported President Obama’s job-approval rating at 46 percent, with a disapproval rating of 46 percent. These numbers hardly signal an easy reelection victory. Although 83 percent of those who call themselves Democrats said they approved of the job he is doing, only 11 percent of Republicans did; and, far more important, only 42 percent of independents said they approved. Obama carried independents in 2008 by 8 points, 52 percent to 44 percent. Among “pure independents—those who, when pushed, don’t lean to either the Democrats or the Republicans—his approval rating was just 33 percent.

General-election matchups in Gallup polling released this week, both in national and swing-state surveys, showed Obama leading Romney. The March 25-26 national sampling put the incumbent up by 4 points, 49 percent to 45 percent. Gallup notes that while the lead is not statistically significant, it is Obama’s widest advantage over Romney in its polling this election cycle. In the March 20-26 Gallup/USA Today survey of voters in the 12 swing states, Obama had a much bigger lead, 51 percent to 42 percent.

If you believe, as I do, that when presidents seek reelection, the contest is more of a referendum on the incumbent than a choice between the incumbent and his opponent, Obama’s job-approval numbers and head-to-head polling numbers suggest that the president still has a very tough fight. Republicans, though, have made their own job a lot harder than it needed to be.

By Charlie Cook

April 10, 2012