Thursday, March 1, 2012

2012 Republican Primary in Review: February 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the Republican primary during the previous month. Follow these links to read earlier recaps: May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January.

In February 2012, Newt Gingrich's campaign suffered total collapse in the wake of Mitt Romney's wins in Florida and Nevada. Rick Santorum pulled a surprise comeback and flipped everything on its head, securing his position as the chief Anti-Romney and transforming the presidential primary into a two-man race.

After winning the Florida Primary at the end of January, Romney's campaign appeared unstoppable. But although Republican voters dismissed Gingrich, they were not at ease with Romney. On February 1st, Romney made a gaffe during a televised interview in which he suggested he was not very concerned about the poor. This remark, though taken out of context, fit into a preexisting narrative of Romney being rich and out of touch.

As a result, concerns about Romney's electability simmered under the surface. This wasn't apparent in Nevada, which voted on February 4th: Romney won a huge victory over Gingrich. Meanwhile, Santorum had been campaigning in the February 7th states, which the other candidates skipped because no pledged delegates were to be awarded there. The absence of the other candidates, combined with Gingrich's defeats and ineligibility for the Missouri ballot, Romney's gaffe, and Santorum's status as the last Anti-Romney, all combined to create a perfect storm. Santorum won the three states voting on February 7th--Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.

At last, Santorum got to experience the surge that all of the other Anti-Romney candidates had enjoyed. Though the states he won awarded no delegates, Santorum finally got the media attention he had previously been denied. Santorum rose in all of the polls. Voters were unfamiliar with Santorum, viewing him as essentially a generic Republican. But as with previous surges, they gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he had no weaknesses. Santorum jumped to the top of the polls, and showed particular strength in his home region of the Midwest.

Romney's campaign once again was in crisis. On February 11th, Romney barely edged out Ron Paul to win the Maine Caucus. Paul had spent a lot of time there; Romney only devoted some last-minute resources there in the hope of drawing attention away from his defeats on February 7th. All eyes were on Michigan, set to vote at the end of the month. Despite being the state of Romney's birth, Santorum dominated the polls there.

Romney understood that he had to reveal Santorum's vulnerabilities to the voters if he had any chance of coming back to win Michigan. However, Romney had taken a lot of flak in some circles for being "too negative" against Gingrich earlier in the campaign. Rather than attack Santorum's electability, Romney decided to attack Santorum's conservative credentials while bolstering his own. Romney and Santorum committed all of their resources to the battle in Michigan. Arizona was left uncontested, and Gingrich retired to the South.

On February 22nd, the only debate of the month was held. Romney and Paul attacked Santorum's conservative credentials. Santorum did not wilt under pressure, but he couldn't escape the attacks, either. In the media, some information about the extreme nature of Santorum's social views began to filter out, but only slowly. Thus far, Romney and the Republican establishment chose not to address the issue. Still, the attacks against Santorum's conservatism gave voters new information, and Romney closed the gap. In desperation, Santorum attempted to promote the Democrats' plan to sabotage the Michigan Primary with votes for Santorum.

On February 28th, Romney won Arizona by 20 points. Though Democrats voting for Santorum cut Romney's margin of victory in Michigan by about half, Romney still managed to win there by 3 points. Romney and the Republican establishment breathed a sigh of relief. But the Super Tuesday states, including Ohio and a number of Southern states where Santorum still held a lead, loomed ahead.

Romney ended the month clearly in the lead position. But Santorum remained largely unvetted and still strong in the polls. In some quarters, Republicans who had not been pro-Romney began to express a desire to see the primary come to a close. The idea increased in popularity that an extended primary fight would only help Barack Obama; the Democrats' attempt to swing the Michigan Primary to Santorum added to that perception. Fear of a contested convention also rose--Romney's opponents might not be able to win a majority of the delegates, but they could prevent Romney from getting one.