The long and winding road

    As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.” Two years ago, the Republicans rejiggered their party rules to ensure a long primary season in 2012 – but now that they’ve gotten what they wished for, they’re very upset about it.

    Super Tuesday – or, to be more accurate, Stupor Tuesday – figures to be just another pit stop on the long and winding road. Ten states are staging contests tonight, and, in accordance with the new party rules that govern March primaries, all 10 will award their delegates on a roughly proportional basis; in other words, runner-up candidates will win some delegates in accordance with their proportion of the vote. (The formulas vary, state by state.) That’s a big departure from the way the GOP game used to be played. Four years ago, under the old “winner take all” system, John McCain virtually swept the delegate board on Super Tuesday by simply finishing first.Party leaders, who devised this new system at a national confab in 2010, calculated that if they spread around the delegates, it would encourage the lesser candidates to stay in the race and thus create more competition over a longer period of time. They envied the long Obama-Clinton contest of 2008, and figured that if they had the same thing, it would similarly gin up voter interest in more states, galvanize the grassroots, and make the GOP look good.But as Rick Perry would say, “Oops.” The protracted contest has only succeeded in making the GOP look bad. The longer this race has dragged on, the worse the party looks. According to the new bipartisan NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll (co-conducted by Democratic and Republican pollsters), 40 percent of Americans have lowered their opinion of the GOP since the start of the primary season; only 12 percent said they have a higher opinion. Independent swing voters, in particular, have run for the hills. Currently, only 22 percent of independents have a favorable view of Mitt Romney, and, among all voters, Romney is far weaker at this point in the campaign than Bob Dole was in 1996 or McCain was in 2008. (And we know how well those guys did in November.) All told, Republican pollster Bill McInturff said that the GOP primary season has been “corrosive.”Romney’s supporters, in particular, have been whining loudly about the long season – made longer not just because of the new delegate allocation rules, but because states were strongly encouraged to stage their contests over an extended period of time. They’re complaining that the new rules are keeping their rivals alive. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie lamented on Fox News that the new rules are “the dumbest idea anybody ever had.” Randy Pullen, a former Arizona party chairman, told CNN, “It was a bad idea (in 2010) and it’s a bad idea now. It’s been a long drawn-out affair, and that’s not a positive thing.”So why was the long season good for the Democrats in 2008 (record turnout, high poll ratings, no exodus of swing-voting independents), and bad thus far for the Republicans in 2012 (tepid turnout, plummeting poll ratings, exodus of independents)? The answer seems obvious:The new rules are not the problem. The candidates are the problem.There’s a big reason why Romney is the weakest Republican front-runner since the dawn of modern polling: he remains anathema to large swaths of the party electorate, notably the evangelical Christians and downscale blue-collar whites. If he was strong with those people (instead of consistently losing them to Rick Santorum), he would have virtually wrapped up the nomination many weeks ago – regardless of the new party rules.Moreover, Romney has long been weak in the GOP’s strongest region: Dixie. During his first bid four years ago, he won zero primaries in the Deep South. Tonight, he is likely to lose Tennessee (to Santorum) and Georgia (to home-boy Newt Gingrich), plus Oklahoma (which has a Deep South demographic that benefits Santorum). If he had any serious Dixie appeal, that too would help him shut down this race – regardless of the new party rules.Ironically, but not surprisingly, Romney’s aides were for a longer season before they were against it. The longer the season, the more voters would have a chance to weigh in. Team Romney said so, in a memo to party leaders back in 2009: “One of the goals of the process must be to encourage as many people as possible to participate in our Republican primaries…Any changes the (GOP) makes with respect to the delegate selection process should be undertaken with this goal of more participation in the Republican selection process in mind.”Team Romney had the right idea. The hitch is, it’s not the length of the season that’s the problem. It’s how the candidates choose to fill the extended time.You can’t blame the new rules for Romney’s rich guy patter (“I have some great friends who are NASCAR owners,” wife Ann drives “a couple of Cadillacs”), or his rich guy cluelessness (earning $374,327 from speaking gigs over a 12-month period is “not very much”). You can’t blame the new rules for Romney’s anti-immigrant bashing. (He now trails Obama among Latino voters by 56 percentage points. That’s not a misprint. That’s from a new poll sponsored by Fox News.) You can’t blame the new rules for Santorum’s sanctimonious obsession with contraception and his vomit talk about JFK. You can’t blame the new rules for Gingrich’s delusional grandiosity. You can’t blame the new rules for Ron Paul, who continues to wage war with the real world (his latest: Uncle Sam should kiss off the ravaged South and Midwest tornado victims; in his words on Sunday, “There is no such thing as federal money. Federal money is just what they steal from the states and steal from you and me”).No, the long season is not the culprit. It merely exposes the manifest flaws of a very weak field. As former national party chairman Michael Steele rightly remarked the other day, “You can curse the game, but it’s how the player is playing the game that’s more problematic.”Maybe Romney can finally beat the game if he breaks through tonight, by trumping Santorum among downscale voters in Ohio and evangelical voters in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Can he pull that off? Betcha $10,000 he doesn’t. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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