Mitt Romney’s Best Friend: Low Expectations

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally at the Tri-City Christian Academy, Feb. 22, 2012 in Chandler, Arizona.

The current narrative of the presidential campaign revolves around Mitt Romney’s embarrassing weakness, and the question of what panicked GOP elders will do if Rick Santorum, whose electability they question, appears headed for the nomination. In a strange fashion that only makes sense in presidential politics, this has become a useful place for Romney to be. After his sweep of the three February 7 contests, Santorum opened up a lead on Romney in Michigan, which votes on Tuesday, and where a Romney loss would be humiliating given his personal ties to the state. Santorum also quickly narrowed Romney’s advantage in Arizona, which will vote the same day.

But in the days after Feb. 7, Santorum enjoyed the equivalent of uncontested air supremacy. Romney hadn’t kicked off an ad campaign (not a major one, at least) in either state, but Republicans were inundated with glowing coverage of Santorum the conqueror. The result wasn’t terribly surprising: Romney’s numbers fell in both states;  Santorum actually claimed a lead in some Michigan polling. Suddenly the Romney-is-doomed storyline came into view. After all, the early March primary calendar, heavy with Southern states, plus industrial Ohio where Romney looks weak, doesn’t offer many quick rebound opportunities for Romney should he stagger bleeding from Michigan and Arizona.

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But the Romney doomsday talk took root before Romney began counterattacking on the TV airwaves, leveraging his greatest advantage–money–against Santorum. And look what’s happening. Two recent polls show the Arizona margin widening back to comfortable margins. And Romney looks to have caught up with Santorum in Michigan. (Other factors beyond advertising might be at work here, including a few days’ coverage of Santorum’s opinions about Satan and the like.) It’s now just as easy to imagine Romney wins in both states which, compared to his extremely low expectations, suddenly do make him look like a “comeback kid,” producing loads of positive free media around the country, including in the March 6 Super Tuesday states where he needs a boost.

The big danger for Romney: It might be happening too soon! There’s still time for expectations to rise again, and for Romney to blow it with, say, another gaffe. But at the moment the trendlines seem headed in the right direction, and it may be that rumors of Romney’s demise will prove greatly exaggerated.