The line on cable news Tuesday night to explain away the irony that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney lost the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses, two contests that he won in the 2008 campaign, was that back then Romney was the conservative alternative to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and that now various candidates are succeeding as the conservative alternative to Romney.
That partly explains the shift in Romney’s fortunes in Minnesota and Colorado, but the larger context is that the volatile Tea Party-fueled uber-conservative GOP primary electorate of 2012 is deeply dissatisfied with Romney and continues to fish around among the available alternatives. It’s the same dynamic that ignited the big swings Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain enjoyed earlier in this cycle.
There’s no ambiguity in the actual numbers: Romney got 60 percent of the vote in Colorado, tripling up 2008 Iowa caucus winner former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) at 18 percent and McCain at 13. He bested the field in Minnesota with 41 percent with McCain at 22 and Huckabee 20. Last night Romney only got 35 percent for second place in Colorado, and 17 percent as the third place finisher in Minnesota.
Romney has never had a hold on the conservative bloc in the 2012 race, which has been the most volatile group within the GOP. Very conservative voters have moved from candidate to candidate, triggering brief but major surges by various candidates not named Mitt. This was the dagger for Romney’s chances in two caucus states, where the process itself favors committed conservatives.
The data before Tuesday’s elections was thin, but Public Policy Polling (D) pollster Tom Jensen published some thoughts on PPP’s data, which were the only numbers from the last days before the caucus. They bore out this theme:
[What] may have had an impact is how volatile the electorate in these states was. 38% of voters in Missouri, 35% in Minnesota, and 31% in Colorado said they were still open to changing their minds about who to vote for. That compares to only 21% in Nevada, 19% in Florida, 22% in South Carolina, 24% in New Hampshire, and 24% in Iowa on our final polls in those states. A lot of folks who told us they were voting for Gingrich/Romney/Paul clearly either didn’t show up or changed to Santorum in the closing stretch. Gingrich in particular did far worse than our polling had predicted and it’s possible his folks jumped ship when they saw Santorum had a much better chance at defeating Romney.
The question for Romney is not that he can be a frontrunner in a crowded field — he’s proven that much — but whether a new breed of conservative voters can ever accept a candidate that smacks of the establishment. At the moment, they are literally considering all alternatives.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.