Ohio: Romney's Unimpressive Win

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JONATHAN COHN MARCH 6, 2012

Ohio: Romney's Unimpressive Win

It looks like Mitt Romney may have escaped Ohio with the narrowest of victories. Just before midnight on Tuesday, with most precincts around the state reporting, he was ahead by 6,000 votes. But does such a slim win really count as a victory?

Even before Tuesday, we knew that Romney would get more delegates from Ohio, because Santorum’s campaign organization hadn’t gotten enough signatures in all of the state’s congressional districts. The state mattered because it was a bellwether. In particular, it was a chance for Romney to show he could vanquish Santorum once and for all. It doesn’t look to me like that happened.

In fact, the results in Ohio looked strikingly like the results from past contests. Romney won in and around the big cities, among wealthier and more educated voters. Santorum prevailed in rural areas, among voters with less money and less schooling. Going forward, Romney has all the advantages he had before: More money, better organization, and an increasingly large lead in pledged delegates.

But Romney is not expanding his base of support and he’s not winning over the doubters. In fact, you can make a pretty good case that, in Ohio, the anti-Romney vote was still bigger than the Romney vote. (In a related development, Santorum advisers are now explicitly appealing to supporters of Newt Gingrich, in the hopes of winning those votes.)

Yes, Romney remains the favorite to win the nomination. But he hasn’t won it yet. The next two weeks could be particularly brutal, as Romney must slog through caucuses in Kansas and Missouri, plus primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. The Illinois primary, on March 20, looks a bit more favorable, but right after that comes Louisiana.

Republican optimists point out, over and over again, that the long, difficult primary of 2008 ended up strengthening Barack Obama. That is true. But 2008 strengthened Obama because he was running against a formidable foe in Hillary Clinton – and because it sharpened his political skills without forcing him to take more extreme ideological positions. As many of us have noted, that is not happening right now.

Just consider an episode that, perhaps because Rush Limbaugh was dominating the headlines, got surprisingly little attention. It happened during a town hall in Youngstown, on Monday, when a college student asked Romney what he would do about rising tuition costs. In response, Romney said

It would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to pay for your college, but I’m not going to promise that. Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education. And hopefully you’ll find that. And don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.

But, as David Firestone of the New York Times observed, Romney said nothing about student loans or Pell Grants, or Obama's new initiatives to push down tuition with government leverage.

That’s the face of modern Republican austerity. Don’t talk about the value of higher education to the country’s economic future, and don’t bother to think about ways to make it more accessible to strapped families. Tell students not to take on more debt than they can afford, wish them well, and move on.

Romney’s answer apparently went over fine with that particular crowd – and, perhaps, that’s why Romney said it. He was doing his best to appeal to the Republican base, which has remained so elusive and remains so opposed to government programs of any type. But that’s no way to win a general election. Most Americans support government programs that help young people pay for college.

The longer this race goes on, the more desperate Romney becomes to protect his right flank, the more he will position himself outside the mainstream. And you can make the case– indeed, I have made the case – that Romney has already committed himself to radically conservative positions on taxes and spending that will alienate swing voters in the general election.

Anything can happen between now and November – anything. But it’s hard to look at Ohio and discern a strong general election candidate emerging from it.

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, barack obama, ohio

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