Published March 05, 2012
In any other presidential election year in the past, a GOP frontrunner, even one as weak as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, would be able to lock down the nomination a few weeks after Super Tuesday.
But this is the first presidential campaign in the post-Citizens United world of billionaires and Super PACs and that may be the reason things go differently this time.
After his Michigan, Arizona and Washington State victories Mitt Romney is surging to his high point in national polls in the GOP primary and picking up support from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, former First Lady Barbara Bush and others as the party establishment actively closes ranks to deliver enough Super Tuesday victories for Romney to send Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul to the exits.
In any other year Romney and his party’s establishment could count on it.
Super Tuesday would, for all intents and purposes, end it. Mitt Romney would truly be the inevitable nominee and the rest of the primary season would become a victory lap -- positioning the GOP standard bearer for his convention and the general election campaign to take on President Obama.
It may still work out that way, but if it doesn’t, it will mean the Republican Party will be the first party to learn just how badly the power of Super PACs have altered the nominating process and America’s politics.
No matter what happens on Super Tuesday, it's possible that all four remaining Republican presidential candidates will stay in the race.
Typically, at this stage in presidential primaries -- in either party -- there would only be two viable candidates left with everyone one else on the sidelines, broke, defeated and lacking momentum to recover.
But in the age of Super PACs, momentum and resources are just a phone call to a billionaire away. With an occasional assist from the Internet, these groups have kept candidates who haven’t won more than a single primary in the race and could keep all four candidates going all the way to the convention.
For the first time in modern history we may witness a four-candidate convention -- not two. Two candidates post Super Tuesday makes it a certainty that one gets to over 50% of the delegates and the nomination; four funded by Super PACs may mean it is more than a possibility that won't happen.
The stakes could not be higher.
Romney needs a super enough Super Tuesday to make the billionaires realize they are wasting their money or he faces a truly long slog against three funded opponents and the GOP faces the real prospect of a broken – not brokered -- convention; a spectacle made for Twitter and television, but at what cost to the Republican party?
Citizens United, the Internet and other changes may have altered the primary process in ways unintended.
Super PACs give a candidate an edge only if none of their opponents have a Super PAC of their own.
But in this primary, all four remaining candidates have Super Pacs that support them. So instead of giving any one candidate an advantage, they collectively prevent any one candidate from gaining too much groung by launching relentless attacks on the guy who's up in the polls even when the campaign they're backing lacks the funds to compete.
No nominee in history will have had more money spent on negative ads against him by others in his own party than the GOP nominee in 2012 and the attacks on each other could last until the convention.
Newt Gingrich tried to stay positive in Iowa while Romney’s Super Pac blasted away at him.
No candidate in the race is going to make that mistake again.
So if Super Tuesday doesn’t end this nomination fight millions more will be spent against whoever is ahead at the time to reinforce perceptions that they aren't electable, aren't conservative enough, or don't have the moral character to be president.
Because of onslaughts like these, you have to wonder if the primary will have inflicted so much damage on the candidates that none of them can possibly unify their party for the general election.
This situation could have happened to either party; the GOP is just the first to have a contested primary under the new finance model.
Depending on your perspective, the comical irony at play here is that the GOP hoped Citizens United and Super PACs would put them level with Obama in 2012 in terms of fundraising. -- Instead the new model may lead to a fractured party that delivers an Obama victory.
Both parties will learn from this experience for 2016.
If Obama wins in November, there will be no incumbent in 2016 -- meaning Democrats and Republicans will have open primaries. You can be sure that any candidate thinking about a 2016 run for president is already looking for a billionaire sponsor.
President Obama had an opportunity to set a political precedent by using Super PACs as a weapon against his opponent. He should have stuck to his guns on not taking Super PAC money.
The contrast between four GOP candidates running campaigns backed extensively by billionaires while promising to extend tax cuts for the rich and Obama refusing to take Super PAC money and running to save the middle class would have branded the GOP as party of the rich for a long time and would have been an especially devastating line of attack against Romney.
I'm not saying that Obama could have ended Super PACs all by himself, just that it would have put their toxic influence front and center in the general election as an issue for voters to discuss and choose to ignore, punish or maybe even incentivize and democratize.
As a Democrat, I understand the argument against unilaterally deciding to forego Super PACs while the Republican take full advantage of them. They are legal and nothing less than the presidency of the United States is at stake. But it would be ironic if the first party to learn that Super PACs have painful unintended consequences that erode a party’s strength is the Republican Party that created them.
In any event, the political carnage I believe could take place in Tampa if Super Tuesday fails to stop the Super PACs could be a window to our future politics. But that doesn't mean I won't enjoy the show.
Joe Trippi is a Fox News contributor and political strategist who worked for Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and turned Howard Dean into an unlikely front runner in 2004. For more visit JoeTrippi.com.