Mitt Romney had a very good night on Tuesday. He not only won Ohio, always a crucial state, but he won it with a strong showing in the very counties that President Obama will be relying on in November. He also carried Virginia, albeit while only facing Ron Paul as a challenger.
Still, combined with his victory earlier this year in Florida, Romney has now chalked up wins in important swing states.
At just the moment when Romney might have taken another symbolic step toward becoming his party's nominee, his campaign instead put out a memo claiming that the former Massachusetts governor’s opponents were attempting to “ignore the basic principles of math,” by not dropping out.
The problem with the memo is not that it is false. Given the number of delegates that Mr. Romney has earned so far, it is highly improbable that any candidate other than the former Massachusetts governor Romney will earn the required 1,144 delegates needed to become the nominee.
But it also packs a psychological punch. Essentially the message from Team Romney team is that everyone should rally behind him because he is going to win anyway. But looking like a winner in politics is a little like looking like a supermodel. If you have to talk people into it, then you probably aren’t one.
To be a winner in American politics, you have to capture the hearts as well as the minds of voters. This is why, unlike all of the other non-Romney Republican surges that we have seen over the past few months, Rick Santorum’s rise has lasted. While many voters are attracted to Santorum’s politics, they don’t always differ that much from Romney’s. What people like about Santorum is his heart, his passion.
On Tuesday night, Romney had a real chance to change voter’s perceptions of him.
When he took the stage in Boston, he started off on the right foot, reflecting on the long hard-fought road he had traveled to arrive at that moment. But he needed to go further. Voters want to know what this struggle has meant to him on a personal level.
Why didn’t Romney mention, for example, what his father might have thought, had he lived to see his son on his way to capturing the nomination that had eluded him? He could have even talked about how inspiring it was for someone of a minority faith to be in this position, and what that said about America.
But even when congratulating his rivals in his speech, Romney missed an opportunity. He granted his opponents all of one sentence. He might as well not have bothered.
He could have demonstrated his belief in the mathematical certainty of his position by being much more generous with his praise. Why not point out the valuable supporters that his rivals had brought to the party (he wants them to work for him in November, after all)?
He might have also magnanimously noted the important messages that they have brought to the campaign trail (the forgotten blue collar workers and role of big ideas) that might otherwise have been absent.
Details matter here, because without them, everything sounds like a platitude.
In short, Tuesday night provided the opportunity for Romney to make not only a political pivot, but an emotional one as well. Romney, the calculating business consultant, becomes the gracious, humble – and human – nominee. Indeed, this type of a speech would have disarmed the Santorum and Gingrich camps (Ron Paul is not going anywhere). They wouldn’t have dropped out right away, but the groundwork would have been in place.
Instead, Romney’s campaign talked about math. While Republican voters may never feel as passionate about Mitt Romney as they do about Rick Santorum, a growing number realize that he is probably the candidate best able to take on Barack Obama in the fall.
Still, this primary fight is unlikely to end until voters feel that they really know and can trust Mitt Romney. He needs to help them, and he can begin by realizing that politics is more than a numbers game.
Paul Sracic is professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center at Youngstown State University.