- Donna Brazile: Mitt Romney is considered the "default" presidential choice in the GOP
- Brazile: But billionaires are propping up the other candidates
- GOP turnout has dropped in five of 13 states that have voted
- Brazile: Romney just doesn't excite Republican voters; the race will continue
It's probably better to be the default candidate than the noncandidate, but it's a position that usually has too many gaps to fill. That seems to be the position of Mitt Romney, and it says a lot about the current state of the Republican Party.
When the Seattle Times came out for Romney ahead of the Washington caucus, the editors stopped short of a real endorsement, calling him the "practical choice" and "the only option in a weak field." They wrote that he "does not excite voters and is a suspect choice, except for all the others."
Several candidates created political earthquakes, only to sink beneath their own aftershocks. One might argue that Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry represented the usual "froth" that appears every four years, and now the Republican Party has gotten down to the serious business of nominating a candidate. But the track records of Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum suggest otherwise.
Of the three remaining candidates, Santorum had the best chance to make a run at Romney. He's emerged as the strongest anti-Romney choice. But Santorum has problems other than what may be called a narrow appeal. (He does best among the evangelical Christians, the less-educated and rural voters, which do not not even constitute a majority of Republicans.) On Super Tuesday, Santorum may lose more than a quarter of the delegates in Ohio even if he wins, because he didn't file full delegate slates in all 16 congressional districts.
But as long as some billionaire is paying the bills -- and pulling the strings -- a candidate can and will stay in the race. Sheldon Adelson has propped up Newt Gingrich. Peter Thiel supports Ron Paul, and Santorum's got "not tonight, I've got a headache" billionaire Foster Friess.
The Republican nomination may go to the highest bidder. Romney's spent almost as much as Gingrich, Paul and Santorum combined. But in some ways the process seems more like a circus than an auction -- or a poorly rehearsed skit of "Who's on first?"
Of the 13 states that have chosen delegates, there's been a counting controversy in two of them. (Of course, when it comes to counting votes, the Republicans have perfected the "fuzzy math" approach.) Iowa flipped from Romney to Santorum, and Maine is going to recount its votes. Romney had to scramble to win Michigan, his home state, which should have been a no-brainer. And probably was.
If this race stays close into the late spring, the candidates will look for reasons to raise questions about how delegates are being allocated and counted. Such confusion calls into question their competency. If the Republicans can't trust themselves to count to 1,144 -- the number of delegates needed to with the nomination -- without messing up the numbers, how can the country trust them to honestly manage bigger numbers?
This brings us back to Romney, the apparent nominee-by-default. He's the leading candidate, and the Republicans just aren't excited. GOP turnout has dropped in five of the 13 states that have voted. (Colorado dropped 6%, Missouri 57%; Florida, Nevada and Minnesota dropped in double digits.) Compared with four years ago, Romney's numbers dropped in six of the 13 states (only 1% in Iowa but 46% in Colorado, 63% in Missouri and 68% in Minnesota). Ironically, the only state with a significant increase in GOP turnout was South Carolina, where Republicans voted against Romney in a landslide: He got just 28% of the vote.
GOP turnout in 2012 is even worse when compared with Democratic primary turnout in 2008, despite population growth. Except for South Carolina, turnout is lower in every state that has voted -- and by significant numbers. Turnout is down by 69% in Missouri, 72% in Nevada, 77% in Minnesota and 86% in Maine. In those four states combined, the average drop of turnout is more than 75%. Those numbers don't bode well for the nominee or the party, no matter how much fuzzy math they use come November.
One reason for GOP indifference may be, ironically, Romney's strength: He's a fighter. But he fights with negatives. While he succeeds in soiling his opponents, he also sullies himself. He has a very high unfavorable rating among independents, and even among Republicans he doesn't match where John McCain was at this point four years ago. When Romney's not negative, he appears unfocused and becomes like a gaffe machine on steroids: "Cadillacs," "Blunt amendment," "firing people," "not worried about the poor," etc.
So what's ahead? A desperate race and a war of attrition. Santorum, Paul and Gingrich have no incentive to exit the race, because they're being paid to stay in and they're getting just enough delegates. Therefore, what we've seen is what we'll get: a negative arc; shrill attacks against other candidates; hysterical hyperventilation against Obama; the language of fear, war and doublespeak; and a social issue feeding frenzy, with fainting spells when women's health is mentioned and panic over immigration. And the media lapping it up.
It's going to be a long, hot spring.
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