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Romney Takes the Lead in Pennsylvania

Rick Santorum has bet his political future on winning the Republican presidential primary in his home state of Pennsylvania this month but according to the latest polling, he’s about to lose that wager. Public Policy Polling’s new survey shows Mitt Romney taking the lead in Pennsylvania for the first time, with a 42-37-percentage point advantage. Santorum’s level of support in Pennsylvania has been declining in recent weeks as polls conducted by Franklin & Marshall College and Quinnipiac University in the last week both showed the large leads he had earlier this year shrinking dramatically. But in the wake of Romney’s wins in three states on Tuesday, voters polled yesterday by PPP appear to be coming to the conclusion that with the general election fight against President Obama about to commence, Santorum’s continuing insurgency is undermining the GOP’s hopes of victory in the fall.

The polling, which showed Romney making up ground with every demographic where he has had trouble throughout the race — evangelicals, Tea Partiers and very conservative voters — demonstrates the fact that growing numbers of even those Republicans who were unsympathetic to the frontrunner are starting to make their peace with his inevitability. And with President Obama already beginning to launch attacks on him, the impulse to close ranks behind their eventual standard-bearer is overcoming home state loyalty to Santorum.

Santorum’s problems in Pennsylvania are actually pretty similar to ones he’s encountered elsewhere. Only about a third of those polled think Santorum actually has a chance to win the nomination and less than a quarter believe he gives his party the best chance to beat Obama. The delegate math and the difficulty in believing that Santorum has any hope of winning in the fall provide the only explanations for the dramatic turnaround in the state in the last month as Santorum lost six points and Romney gained 17 as the outline of the race solidified.

With 19 days left until Pennsylvanians vote that leaves plenty of time for the lead to change again, so expect Santorum to double down on the harsh attacks on Romney as indistinguishable from the president. The former senator has been sending clear signals in recent days that he has little interest in being a team player for the GOP and winding down his insurgency. Indeed, his speech on Tuesday night in Pennsylvania — during which he never mentioned the fact that he had lost three primaries that day — seemed to indicate that his model was Ronald Reagan’s 1976 challenge to Gerald Ford and that his ultimate goal was to pick up the pieces of the party after Romney lost in November. The notion of redeeming a fallen GOP as Reagan did before he won the presidency in 1980 appeals to both Santorum’s vanity and his conviction that Romney is unworthy of his party’s nomination.

But that scenario will be impossible if Santorum can’t win in his home state. The idea that he can successfully carry his revolt into southern states in May after getting overthrown in Pennsylvania is fanciful. Just as Pennsylvanians are coming around to understanding that prolonging the race is a gift to Obama, conservatives elsewhere are also coming to that conclusion.

Though President Obama and the Democrats are hopeful that Santorum will keep pouring on the vitriol and make Romney’s life miserable all the way to the Republican National Convention in Tampa at the end of the summer, GOP voters realize that isn’t in their interests. That means that while the next three weeks will be very nasty indeed, there is now a better than even chance that Romney will score a knockout blow that will finally end the Republican contest.