I wish I could take credit for that phrase but it belongs to Joseph Curl. We’re all very, very tired of this process, I know, but look on the “bright” side — if Romney rolls, this may well be the last night of election returns you need to follow until November. Yay, Mitt?
There are endless preview posts out there worth recommending but I’ll stick with two rather than inundate you. First, Guy Benson has a useful at-a-glance summary of which candidates are favored where, punctuated by the jump-ball states of Ohio and Tennessee. Whoever overperforms in those two will control the narrative tomorrow; if Romney wins both he’ll be touted as the de facto nominee, especially having now proved that he can win in the south. Second, refer to the charts in Nate Silver’s post for numerical benchmarks on how each candidate’s expected to do given current polling. Romney’s got a real shot at winning a majority of delegates tonight while Newt, because of his dominance in Georgia, could end up taking more delegates overall than Santorum. Any sharp deviations from those expectations may signal a new surge for one of them tomorrow or may even end a campaign. (If Gingrich somehow lost Georgia, which is unlikely in the extreme, he’s finished by his own admission.) As it is, 65 percent of Republican likely voters expect Romney will be the nominee compared to just 54 percent last week. The higher that number goes, the harder it is for Santorum and Gingrich to animate the base to stop him. In fact, no matter how Mitt does tonight, his campaign’s got a handy talking point for tomorrow: Realistically, it’s already too late for anyone else to win the nomination.
The bottom line here is that Romney has enough of a delegate advantage right now and especially coming out of today’s contests that it is very unlikely that anyone will catch him, much less catch him and get to 1144. The latter seems particularly far-fetched given the above scenarios. And that is a problem in this race. Well, a problem for Gingrich and Santorum anyway. If all either of them can take to voters is an argument that all they can do is prevent Romney from getting to 1144, then neither has a winning strategy. That sort of strategy has a half life; one that will grow less effective as, in this case, Romney approaches 1144. Complicating this scenario even further for Gingrich and Santorum is the fact that if neither can get to 1144 or even close to it, neither is all that likely to be the candidate to emerge as the nominee at any — unlikely though it may be — contested convention.
These contests today may not be decisive in terms of settling the nomination, but they very much represent a mental hurdle in this race. That Santorum and Gingrich cannot get to 1144 without vastly over-performing in the remaining contests (relative to how well they have done in the contests thus far) ushers in a new phase in the race.
The first polls close tonight at 7 p.m. ET in Virginia, Vermont, and Georgia — all three of which are likely to be called promptly at the top of the hour (the first two for Romney and the third for Newt). Things get interesting at 7:30, when Ohio starts to roll in, and then again at 8 when Tennessee starts counting. Here’s your handy Google Elections page to follow it all; lots of updates coming below, needless to say. While we wait, via Greg Hengler, here’s The One wishing Romney well at today’s presser. He seems pretty excited to face him. I wonder why.
Update: If you’re bored with the race, Democrats are lovin’ it.
The Republican nomination battle is rallying Democrats behind Barack Obama. Currently, 49% of Democrats say that as they learn more about the GOP candidates, their impression of Obama is getting better. Just 36% of Democrats expressed this view in December, before the Republican primaries began.
In contrast, there has been virtually no change in Republicans’ views of the GOP field during this period. Just 26% of Republicans say their impression of the GOP field has improved as they have learned more about the candidates. That is largely unchanged from December (30%).
Among indies, 10 percent say their views of the field has improved as the race has worn on — compared to 28 percent who say they’ve gotten worse. (In fairness, the numbers were nearly identical in December.)
Update: Tasty exit poll data from Ohio via Jake Tapper: Fully 53 percent say Romney has the best chance of beating Obama versus just 23 percent who say Santorum. But when asked which candidate best understands average Americans’ problems, Santorum wins 32/23.
Update: Romney tormentor Andrew Kaczynski of BuzzFeed digs up yet another example of Mitt pushing RomneyCare as a model for national health care, this time in a speech to House Republicans in 2009:
We should be first to propose a Republican plan to bring health insurance to all Americans, one based on market dynamics, free choice, and personal responsibility. I think what we did in Massachusetts is a good model to start from, but whatever direction we take, let’s not simply react to what the Democrats do. Their own plan would undoubtedly create a vast new system of costly entitlements and bureaucratic dictates, burdening the people and threatening the economy. Americans will be looking for a better alternative. Let’s give it to them.
Santorum went after Romney hard on Laura Ingraham’s show today for his dishonesty about using RomneyCare as a model, saying, “we are going to give away the most important issue in this election.” B-b-b-but, electability!
And since we’re rapidly approaching the moment when criticizing Romney will be treated as high treason on the right, go ahead and read this excellent Dan McLaughlin piece at Red State analyzing Mitt as a salesman for conservative policies while you still can. The bottom line: He’s not going to win any converts. If the GOP takes back the White House, it’ll be because Obama somehow blew it, not because Romney talked centrists into embracing moving right.
Update: Good lord. It really is Stupor Tuesday.
Update: It’s 7 p.m. and all’s well for Newt. He’s won Georgia. A mild surprise in Virginia and Vermont, though — Fox News says they’re both too close to call. Remember, only Ron Paul was on the Virginia ballot with Romney; right now Fox says he’s running a “strong second.” Hmmmm. Revisit this old post from January speculating that Paul would do much better head to head against Romney, if only as a protest vote against his inevitability, than people expected. Needless to say, if he shocked the world by knocking off Mitt in a key swing state like VA, it would shatter Romney’s narrative tomorrow about Republicans coming around to him as nominee.
Update: A splash of cold water from Dave Weigel: Apparently, Virginia exit polls show Romney winning … 63/37. Is that possible? Surely the networks wouldn’t say that race is too close to call.
Update: So much for “too close to call.” At 7:18, Fox and NBC both call Virginia for Romney. I’m curious to see the final margin.
Update: Ten minutes later, despite another fleeting challenge from Paul, Romney wins in his backyard of Vermont.
Update: CNN.com now has links posted on its front page to exit polls from Virginia, Georgia, Vermont — and Ohio. In Ohio, Romney and Santorum are dead even at 36 percent among men but Mitt wins women by three points. Not sure how that adds up to the four-point win that CNN is projecting (40/36), but there you go. The killer data bite:
This one’s fascinating too:
You would think older voters might gravitate to the more socially conservative Santorum, but nope. Unsurprisingly, electability was the most important quality to a plurality of voters (42 percent) and Romney wins that 53/27. On the question of who’s the true conservative, Santorum wins 50/13.
Update: Here’s the Romney vs. Paul Virginia exit poll. Not surprisingly, Paul wins younger voters, unmarrieds, and independents. Mitt wins most everyone else, and on the electability question, wins 84/16. Looks like he’s headed for 20-point or so win.
Update: It’s 8 p.m. and two more races are promptly called, Massachusetts for Romney and, surprisingly, Oklahoma for Santorum. Santorum was supposed to win there but it wasn’t a mortal lock. Stand by for exit polls.
Update: And here’s the Oklahoma exit poll now. Newt and Mitt each took roughly 25 percent of men and women and Santorum cleaned up with the rest. It’s worth clicking through and scrolling down to see how remarkably consistent he was across all sorts of demographics. In Ohio, he and Romney predictably split the vote among those without and with college degrees, but in Oklahoma, Santorum won both groups easily. The two notable areas in which Romney beat him are among those who said a candidate’s religious beliefs matter not much or not at all and, of course, on electability. White evangelicals made up 72 percent of the electorate; Santorum beat Romney 41/24 among them.
Update: Big news for Santorum given the grimness of those Ohio numbers: He’s on track to win Tennessee by four or five points according to their exit poll. Again he wins both college grads and non-grads, and again he crushes Romney among the heavy “white evangelical” majority (73 percent) of the electorate. Interesting:
As usual, Romney’s the runaway winner on electability and Santorum’s the runaway winner on who’s the true conservative.
Update: The Examiner’s Mark Tapscott flags this tasty tidbit from the Massachusetts exit poll. Yes, granted, Romney is cruising, but note the results in the first column here:
Fully half of Republican primary voters in Massachusetts say RomneyCare went too far.
Update: Assuming all the exit polls hold, what’s Newt’s argument for going forward with his campaign? He won South Carolina six weeks ago and tonight he won his home state, but he lost Florida badly and now, apparently, he’s set to lose Tennessee too. Santorum at least has appeal beyond a single region: He’s won in the midwest, he’s poised to win in the south, and thanks to Oklahoma, he’s got a win in the gateway to the southwest too. He won’t win the nomination but as a Not Romney he’s got wider reach than Gingrich seems to have.
Update: At 8:35 ET, NBC calls Tennessee for Santorum. Big win. And given how close the exits are in Ohio, he’s still got a shot there too.
Update: The mood of primary voters in one line, per this depressing WSJ piece: “We don’t have great choices, but it’s anyone but Obama for me.”
Update: Philip Klein looks at Romney’s take among evangelical voters tonight and finds … it ain’t good:
OHIO: Santorum 47%, Romney 31%
TENNESSEE: Santorum 40%, Romney 24%, Gingrich 24%
OKLAHOMA: Santorum 41%, Romney 24%, Gingrich 24%
Says Klein, “The bottom line: evangelicals are still soft on Romney, and where they make up a critical mass of the electorate, he loses.” Fair enough, but the south is a cinch to stay red no matter who the nominee is against O. Then again, when you put it this way, is does seem absurd, doesn’t it?
Update: Ohio’s the cliffhanger of the evening so let’s start paying attention. With a little more than 11 percent in, it’s Santorum who leads by nearly 2,000 votes.
Update: Santorum’s lead is now nearly 5,000 votes with nearly 14 percent in, but use Google’s election map and zoom in on the state to see the district-by-district voting. The urban areas like Cleveland and Cincinnati where Romney is typically strong have barely started reporting yet. He’ll pile up votes there once they start coming in.
Update: David Frum, Romney fan, isn’t happy with what he sees:
This is shaping up as a scary night for those who think that Mitt Romney is the only conceivable Republican nominee in 2012. The Republican Party does not agree. Not winning Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma … that’s troubling. There’s still no path for anybody else to the Republican nomination. But ouch, ouch, ouch, what a bumpy path for the guy it’s going to have to be.
I can give him a pass on Georgia because it’s Newt’s home state but Tennessee would have been a huge narrative-builder for Romney as proof that he can win in the south. (The real south, not Florida.) As it is, it’s just one reminder after another that deep red states don’t trust him.
Update: More than 26 percent reporting in Ohio now and Santorum leads by 13,000 votes. And yet … still no numbers from the cities. There’s going to be a big swing towards Romney once they come in. Only question is how big.
Update: Virginia is nearly entirely in now and, with 99.8 percent reporting, Ron Paul’s managed to take 40.6 percent from the presumptive nominee. (In my post in January, I said, “Wouldn’t surprise me at all if the margin is closer to 10-15 points than 30.”)
Update: Ben Domenech: “If you are struggling to beat *Rick Santorum* in Ohio, you are not a strong campaign.”
Update: Shortly after 10 p.m. ET, there’s been a surge in returns from Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located. With 40.8 percent reporting, Romney leads Santorum there 47/31, a margin of 7,000 votes. That’s a lot, but statewide Santorum still leads by more than 10,000; in fact, as of 20 minutes ago, Nate Silver gave him a 60-70 percent chance of holding on to win. That seems overly optimistic to me given that Hamilton County, which contains Cincinnati, has barely started reporting yet.
Update: And there’s another state for Santorum: With more than 50 percent reporting, CNN calls North Dakota for him. Go look at the Google Elections map. Middle America is getting purpler with each primary.
Update: More than 65 percent reporting now in Ohio and Santorum’s 15,000-vote lead is steady. Lots of Cuyahoga County is still out but Hamilton County is nearly 50 percent in and his lead there is only 4,000 votes. Is he really going to lose both of the jump-ball states on what was supposed to be coronation night?
John Fund wonders how a guy whose campaign is so well-armed can fare this badly:
He lost Oklahoma to Rick Santorum, despite the endorsement of the state’s most popular politician — populist U.S. senator Tom Coburn.
He won Virginia, where his only opponent was Ron Paul, by only 59 percent to 41 percent. He lost significant cities ranging from upper-crust Charlottesville to working-class Lynchburg.
Late-reporting urban areas may still give Romney a win in Ohio, but it is striking that he is struggling so much in a state where he carpet-bombed Rick Santorum the way he did. And in Ohio — unlike Michigan — there was no semi-organized effort among Democrats to embarrass him by casting votes for Santorum. Romney won among those voters who saw electability in November as their prime concern; his problem was that many voters had other priorities. Evangelicals continued to resist him, as did many blue-collar workers and the most conservative of voters.
Romney should consider himself very, very lucky that Santorum couldn’t organize well enough to get on the ballot in Virginia. If he had beaten Romney there too — and that’s entirely possible given that he would have swept up Paul’s protest vote plus some reluctant Paul-hating Romney voters — the headlines tomorrow about Mitt dropping not one but two crucial swing states would have been disastrous.
Update: Another chunk of Hamilton County just came back and put a dent in Santorum’s lead. He’s down to 7,000 votes statewide with still more than half of Cuyahoga to come.
Update: And just like that, Santorum’s lead is down to 2,000 votes. 77 percent of precincts have reported but still nothing new from Cuyahoga. Romney suddenly looks like he’s in good shape to win. And if Santorum does hold on, he might owe it to … Democrats:
According to exit polls, Democrats constituted 5 percent of the Ohio primary electorate, and 45 percent of them voted for Mr. Santorum. Just 25 percent voted for Mitt Romney.
That translates roughly into a 1 or 2 percentage point bump for Mr. Santorum.
Update: Comeback complete. According to CNN’s ticker, with 86 percent in, Romney now leads by less than 2,000 votes. Another chunk of Cuyahoga county came back and propelled him to the top. And 40 percent of the precincts there still have yet to report.
Update: More good news for Romney: NBC just projected that he’ll win the Idaho caucuses. 32 more delegates.
Update: With 88 percent in, Romney now leads by 5,000 votes. Scroll through CNN’s table of Ohio counties and you’ll see that the only ones where any significant number of votes are still to come in are Romney counties, capped of course by Cuyahoga. Realistically, there’s no way for Santorum to come back. I’d be surprised if we don’t get a call from the networks soon.
Update: I didn’t see it but Andrew Kaczynski says Erick Erickson acknowledged on CNN a few minutes ago that Romney will be the nominee.
Update: It’s a quarter to midnight on the east coast and there’s still no call in Ohio, but like I said above, it’s a done deal. It’s amusing as a political junkie to watch a few thousand votes in a few counties reshape an entire national narrative. Had Mitt dropped this state and Tennessee and Oklahoma, I thought we’d finally see the long-promised round of “panicked GOP establishment looks to replace Romney with white knight” stories that were on tap in case he lost Michigan to Santorum. As it is, there’ll be plenty of well deserved doomsaying tomorrow about Romney struggling to beat a bare-bones operation like Team Sweater Vest in a key battleground state despite a huge financial advantage, but it’ll all be tempered by the fact that (a) Romney did in fact win and (b) he continues to pile up delegates, to the point where Gingrich and Santorum are fighting on to no realistic end except possibly to deny him an outright majority, which won’t make much of a difference at the convention anyway. (Caveat: Team Santorum tells NBC that they’re going to start pressuring Newt to drop out, which is the last best hope of keeping things interesting.) Regardless of what happens in Ohio, though, the fundamentals of the race are clear enough: An awful lot of Republicans, especially in the south, clearly have no confidence in Romney, and Team Mitt just as clearly is unperturbed by the fact. All they need to do is get to 1,144 — if the only way is to carpet-bomb the opposition until they all seem as ideologically suspect as Romney is, so be it — and then the incantation of “Anybody but Obama” will work its magic to guarantee turnout in November. It’s a brute test of wills with conservatives and they’re winning. Barely, but still. In its own way, it’s really impressive.
Update: And there you go. At 12:33 ET, CNN finally calls Ohio for Romney.