Was Tuesday Night Really So Terrible for Mitt Romney?

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I’m wondering if Tuesday night’s results in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri really were so atrocious for Mitt Romney. As Alex Altman noted last night, there’s one obvious upside: Rick Santorum’s big night complicates the anti-Mitt movement, ensuring that conservative opposition to Romney remains divided. Tuesday night’s results might have made Romney look weak and unloved, but his path to the nomination doesn’t appear to be in real danger as long as Santorum and Gingrich each hang around, trading mini-surges and splitting a pool of voters who can’t stomach a formerly pro-choice ex-Massachusetts governor leading their party.

(MORE: With Tuesday Caucuses, Santorum Gets a Second Chance to Shine)

It’s also worth thinking about the psychology behind last night’s vote. The turnout for Romney was pathetic, with particularly embarrassing results in Colorado and Minnesota, states where he prevailed over John McCain in 2008. But there’s a reason Romney would have won those states then and lost them now. In 2008, as in 2012, you had a frontrunner who, though he may face lingering opposition within the party, has achieved a strategic position of overwhelming superiority. People willing to accept Romney as the nominee didn’t have much incentive to turn out and vote on Tuesday; they understand that he’s basically a lock. The same held for McCain in 2008.

The people with a greater incentive to vote on Tuesday were those with a high preference intensity, probably based around issues like abortion, or an extreme distaste for Romney. That vote was surely easier to capture, and Santorum did it. Sure, at some point, if a front runner looks strong enough, you’d expect holdouts to give up. But in this case, you’ve got a front runner who is an unusually bad fit for his party’s base, which keeps kicking at his shins. To put it another way: I’m not sure that Tuesday night told us anything we didn’t already know, either about Romney or the party.

(VIDEO: What Comes Next After Mitt Romney’s Florida Primary Victory?)

Hence I don’t see how this amounts to a crisis for Romney. His money, his (admittedly dented) aura of inevitability, and both Santorum and Gingrich’s own severe political limitations make them unlikely to derail Mitt’s path to the nomination. The more interesting question remains Romney’s strengths and weaknesses once he gets there.

MORE: Election 2012: Can Anyone Stop Romney?