Mitt Romney has known struggle.
Not the economic hardship, American-dream style struggle. The struggle to convince Republican voters that in a presidential election where the Democratic incumbent has been hobbled by a prolonged recession, a moderate business leader might be the best electoral choice. It hasn’t exactly gone as planned.
But that may be over, unceremoniously squashed between his domination in the Illinois Republican primary and his drubbing in Louisiana. Namely, it didn’t matter that Romney was headed for defeat in the southern state, not only because the delegate rules meant the outcome was a bit inconsequential, but a convincing popular vote win didn’t mean much to the Santorum campaign. Because it’s probably over.
It seems that GOP voters have finally been dragged into a shotgun wedding with Romney, and it’s showing up in polling data. Despite the fact that Romney has consistently had an issue getting Republicans to actually vote for him throughout the race, there always been a tangible evidence that the party faithful considered him the eventual nominee, and the best one at that.
The theme showed up a month ago, when a CNN poll of Republicans nationally revealed that while Romney was down two to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a 55 percent majority of GOPers believed that Romney would be the eventual nominee. Only 18 percent thought the same about Santorum. The result could certainly be interpreted as the numerical way of Republican voters expressing their base feeling on the race — Romney will be the standard bearer for the GOP, but members of the rank and file don’t have to like it.
A month later in early March, that number had grown immensely. A CBS News/New York Times poll showed Santorum up four nationally, but nearly three-quarters of Republican voters were resigned to the fact that Romney would be the nominee. There was still the traditional fickleness that’s been the hallmark of the GOP nomination process, but the growing number of those who thought Romney was going to take it suggests that the party’s supporters may intuitively know that time is up. And on Tuesday, CNN released another poll that showed that Romney has nearly solidified that sentiment, with 92 percent of Republican voters saying that he was “almost certain,” “very likely,” or “somewhat likely” to attain the nomination. No other candidate even approached that score.
The polling also shows that it’s probably about time. A Pew survey from early March showed that Republicans are beginning to worry that the process is being prolonged, and it was hurting their chances in the general. “A month ago, 55% said the fact that the contest was undecided and still going on was a good thing for the party, while 36% said it was a bad thing,” Pew wrote on March 14th. “Opinion is now divided almost evenly, with 47% saying it is good and 43% bad. Mitt Romney’s supporters are more likely to say the long campaign is a bad thing for the party (52%), than are Gingrich’s (36%) or Santorum’s (30%) supporters.”
And they may be right. A look back at the contests about a month ago show that Romney’s win on February 28th in Michigan and then Super Tuesday victory in Ohio, where Santorum came within a few points but fell short both times, may have been the last chance to fundamentally change the race. Through the month of February, Romney’s favorability rating tumbled nationally while he seemed to be slipping from his inevitable status, while Santorum rose slightly.
Now the two men are reversed, with Santorum on the downslope in the TPM Poll Average of his favorability rating, while Romney has recovered in his, continuing to nurse a healthy lead in the delegate count.
So while Republicans decided long ago that Romney isn’t the most captivating, motivating candidate, he has now at least successfully made the argument the he’s the best shot to best President Obama, which is their top concern.
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.