Mitt Romney is the least appealing front-runner for a Republican presidential nomination since Herbert Hoover convinced an appropriately skeptical Grand Old Party to renominate him in 1932.
And Hoover, for all his faults, was a far more commendable figure than the Bain Capitalist will ever be.
Romney has scant personal appeal, as polling and anecdotal evidence confirms on a daily basis. After pondering several options for the most ironically absurd headline of the week, the editors of the satirical newspaper the Onion chose for their current edition: “Romneymania Sweeps America.”
Romney, pro-choice before he was anti-choice, pro–healthcare reform before he was anti–healthcare reform, has no ideological appeal to a party of purists.
And Romney, now fully identified as the poster boy for crony capitalism, rapacious greed and tax avoidance, has an increasingly limited appeal as a potentially electable Republican nominee in November. As former Florida Governor Charlie Crist said after the former Massachusetts governor won Tuesday night's Florida primary, the Republican fight so far -- and the fight from here on out -- "has to have a negative impact" on party unity and Romney's ultimate prospects.
Even with Tuesday night's Florida win, Romney has yet to show that he has what it takes to unify a majority of Republicans behind his candidacy. He has not done that in any of the primary and caucus states that have voted thus far; nor is he anywhere near doing that in national polls. This explains why the candidates who got the majority of Florida votes -- Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul -- will stay in a race where 95 percent of Republican National Convention delegates are still to be chosen.
On Tuesday night, Gingrich backers, as enthusiastic as ever, held up signs that read: "46 States to Go!" Promising a "people power" versus "money power" race through the rest of those states, Gingrich portrayed himself as the "conservative alternative" to Romney, "the Massachusetts moderate."
Of the two-thirds of Florida primary voters who told exit pollsters they support the Tea Party movement, 60 percent rejected Romney. Among the almost 70 percent of Florida primary voters who identified as conservatives, the overwhelming majority rejected Romney. Indeed, the frontrunner only beat Gingrich among self-identified conservatives by 4 points. And, among the one-third of Florida primary voters who identified themselves as "very conservative," Gingrich won 43 percent to just 29 percent for Romney.
As conservative commentator Erick Erickson -- who suggested Tuesday night that the Republican race is far from settled -- said: "Mitt Romney is not closing the deal with conservatives."
But don't cry for Romney. He may not have much in the way of genuine appeal to the Republican base.
What Romney does have is money. Lots of it. More money in campaign accounts and Super PAC cash flows than the rest of the candidates combined. And he is spending it, wildly. Even before today’s Florida primary, it was reported that Romney was outspending his closest rival, former House Speaker Gingrich, by roughly $12 million.
Specifically, the Romney campaign spent $6.9 million to air commercials on the state’s broadcast and cable channels as of Monday morning. Romney’s Restore Our Future Super PAC spent a reported $8.5 million on the same channels. Total: $15.4 million.
For Gingrich, it was $1.6 million in spending by the campaign and $2.2 million by his Winning Our Future Super PAC. Total: $3.8 million.
Romney spent unprecedented amounts for a primary, while his opponents did not. That explains Romney’s win in Florida, not his modestly more muscular debate performances. Indeed, if the quality of debate performances mattered, Rick Santorum, whose recent appearances have been his strongest, would have won the state. But Santorum did not have the money. Neither, realistically, did Gingrich. And Ron Paul never really played in Florida; having decided weeks ago to place his bets on caucuses in Maine and Nevada.
When the final accounting is finished, it is entirely possible that Romney spent more than all the other candidates on the Florida GOP primary ballot.
But he did much more than that. Romney spent at historic levels in Florida.
Consider this: in 1960, according to the Federal Communication Commission, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon spent a total of $10,052,322 on political commercials during the course of the entire campaign. Romney and his Super PAC overshot that by at least $5 million.
Money matters in politics. And it bought Romney a little “love.”
But not a majority.
In Florida Tuesday night, Romney was winning 46 percent to 32 percent for Gingrich, 13 percent for Santorum and 7 percent for Paul.
So far, Romney has not gotten anywhere near 50 percent of the vote in any caucus or primary state.
Indeed, 75 percent of Iowa caucus goers rejected Romney.
In New Hampshire, 61 percent of primary voters rejected Romney.
In South Carolina, 72 percent of primary voters rejected Romney.
And in Florida, after record spending, Romney still was rejected by 53 percent of Republican primary voters.
The Romney rejection rate in Florida tells the real story, not just of what happened in the Sunshine state but of where this race is headed.
At this point in the race, and with his advantages, Romney should be breaking the 50 percent barrier. In 2000, for instance, George W. Bush hit the 50 percent mark after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, with a 51 percent finish in Delaware and a 53 percent finish in South Carolina. And Bush maintained majority or near-majority support from there on out. As the party’s nominee, Bush won the 2000 election—with an assist from Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and family friends on the US Supreme Court.
In contrast, in 1996, it took Bob Dole eleven primary and caucuse contests before he broke the 50 percent level. As the Republican nominee, Dole lost, overwhelmingly.
Similarly, in 2008, John McCain went through the better part of a dozen caucus and primary states before breaking the 50 percent mark. As the Republican nominee, McCain lost, overwhelmingly.
Appealing to the majority of caucus and primary voters early on matters, particularly in Republican races. Unlike the Democrats, who are more familiar as a party with drawn-out nominating processes, the Republicans have to work very hard to pull together a “coalition” of billionaires and under-employed opponents of abortion rights. They need time to make this happen.
So the Florida results provide important indicators regarding the 2012 race.
But they weren't the indicators Romney claimed in a "victory" speech that still followed on a contest where most voters opposed him.
Referencing exit polls from Florida, Erick Erickson noted that: "Fifty-seven percent of Republican voters said they want a different choice. That does not spell excitement or unity headed into November."
Romney is likely to be the Republican candidate against Barack Obama. But, despite a Florida "win," he still cannot present himself as the candidate who a majority of Republicans are willing to accept (however grudgingly) as their nominee.
To get there, Romney is going to have to spent a lot more of his money. His SuperPACs are going to have to spend a lot more of their money. And core conservatives are going to have to overcome a lot more of their reservations about the least appealing frontrunner in the modern history of the Republican Party.Bio: John Nichols is the Washington correspondent for The Nation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.