With Mitt Romney escaping Michigan bruised, but intact, his attention now turns to a perhaps more crucial contest—Ohio. Among the Super Tuesday contests, Ohio is important not just for the number of delegates it will award but because the Buckeye State will garner intense interest in the fall. Whereas President Obama’s polling numbers in Michigan have been quite strong, and he won the state by more than 16 points in 2008, Ohio is less friendly territory.
One question we might ask is whether there is a correlation between a candidate’s performance in a state’s primary and how they will fare in November. The ability to pivot from the primary to the general is a skill that all winning candidates must develop. On one hand, there’s reason to doubt a clear connection between a state’s primary and general contest. Primaries, we know, bring a much more ideological electorate to the polls. A losing primary candidate may have been “too moderate” for the party faithful—but consequently more competitive in the more moderate fall electorate.
On the other hand, primaries give candidates the opportunity to build an organization and campaign infrastructure that can be put to work in November. Those candidates who can win primaries and caucuses are those who demonstrate the ability to build the massive organization that will be crucial to winning the general. Much of this organization will be directed toward the larger general election audience once the nomination is secured. If they fail at this during the primaries, they may fail at it during the fall.
Should a connection between the primary and general exist, it is of most importance in “toss-up” or “swing” states. Mitt Romney’s primary loss in South Carolina will not—absent complete collapse—matter in the fall. Clearly more important was what transpired the next week in Florida. It’s almost impossible to conceive of a Romney (or Santorum for that matter) win in November that doesn’t include winning the Sunshine State.So what does history tell us???
Most recent nomination contests—with the exception of the Democrats in 2008—have wrapped up quite quickly. With the winner rolling through state after state there haven’t been a large number of states that allow us to explore the question of whether candidates can bounce back from primary losses. However if, as it now seems, the GOP contest is going to go on for a while, we should have the opportunity to dig into this phenomenon some more. Despite the relative lack of test cases, there are some examples that jump out.
Looking at those competitive or “toss-up” states, we find relatively few instances in recent cycles where a candidate lost his party’s primary or caucus there, and then recovered to win the state in November. The one exception to this is Barack Obama. In 2008, Obama lost spring contests in New Hampshire, Nevada, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Mexico. Despite this, he won all of them in the general. In this sense, the long nomination fight that forced Obama to build statewide organizations may have paid off in the fall.John McCain, who wrapped up the GOP contests more swiftly and with fewer losses, failed to win any swing states that he also lost during the primaries. In 2004, John Kerry swept to the nomination in even faster order with only a small handful of primary losses. None were in states seen as competitive at the time. In 2000, George W. Bush won one swing state he lost in the primary—New Hampshire—while losing another--Michigan. Bob Dole, in 1996, lost Missouri during the nomination contest but bounced back to win it in the fall. In 1992 Bill Clinton managed to lose 3 spring state contests that he put in his column in November—New Hampshire, Colorado, and Nevada. Finally, in 1988, Michael Dukakis managed one of his few fall wins in Iowa, whose caucuses he lost. On the flip side, whereas George H.W. Bush only lost nine states in the general, three came in normally competitive states that he lost during the primary season—Iowa, Minnesota, and Washington.
So, despite the small number of cases that fit our definition—primary losses in swing states--there seems to be pretty good reason for Mitt Romney to worry about next week’s vote in Ohio. Like Florida, Ohio is a state that GOP badly needs in November. Should he fail to defeat Rick Santorum there next week, the loss may prove to be more lethal than even Michigan would have been.