Mitt Romney has halted the decline in his political fortunes, with a quinella win in the Arizona and Michigan primaries. The double header gives Romney seven victories out of twelve, making him an actual frontrunner, rather than a presumed one.

Yet the victory has been far from absolute, giving him a mere three percent edge over Rick Santorum 41% to 38%. Furthermore, because Michigan awards its delegates proportionally, and by congressional district, it’s likely that Romney will get the same number of the 30 delegates as Santorum, and possibly less.

In Arizona, Romney won handsomely, as he was expected to do, taking the state 48% to Santorum’s 27% – and all of its delegates, the contests being a winner-take-all event.

The evening leaves Romney with 143 delegates, with Santorum on 62, Gingrich on 32 and Ron Paul on 20. The maths of how they got these are far too complicated to go into — they involve not only a series of proportional contests (hence Paul’s 20 delegates without winning a gig), and also some assumed attribution of delegates from caucus states, who are technically “unbound”, but will be shared out anyway.

In the next forty or so contests (there are primaries in territories, as well as states), there’s only a half-dozen or so winner-take-all contests remaining, meaning that Romney faces a long haul to accumulating the 1144 delegates required to be the de facto nominee before the convention.

Bizarrely, the barely exciting result in Michigan, Romney’s onetime home-state, where he was held to a draw by a man with a tenth of his resources, has been taken as confirmation that he is back on top. That seems yet another example of what has been the dominant motif in this contest, a concentration span of about four days. The odds are still in favour of Romney, but as the results show, the contender “everyone else” has nearly as many delegates.

That would be bad under any circumstances, but Romney is heading towards a “super Tuesday” where he is unlikely to garner a decisive series of victories. There are ten states up for grabs. Romney will grab Massachusetts, his real home state, and Vermont. He and Ron Paul are the only ones on the ticket in Virginia, and Romney is outpolling Paul two to one, the Virgin state fairly right-shifted, but no fans of Paul’s foreign policy.

In the south, Gingrich is the one to beat in Georgia, his home state — and if he can’t win that, he will surely exit the race. But that is shaping up to be Gingrich’s only win of the day, with Tennessee and Oklahoma both showing strong Santorum leads.

In the heterogeneous northern states, well, it’s anyone’s guess. They were originally dominated by the ethos brought by north European immigrants, and tended to moderate republicanism. But in recent decades, evangelical Christianity has had the same successes it finds in any declining region that starts to go backwards, and that gives Santorum a strong base in North Dakota.

In Idaho, northward-trekking Mormon populations give Romney an extra demographic (the state contains the country’s single-most Republican county, an LDS enclave which votes 90% red-state). In Alaska, Gingrich has gained Sarah Palin’s endorsement, and whoopdee-doo to that, but the Newster has no real organic base, now that Santorum has had such a strong surge.

That leaves Ohio. With 66 delegates, it is not the greatest haul of the day — that goes to Georgia, with 76 delegates — but it is unquestionably the most important. It is the only swing state in which Romney and Santorum are going head to head, and it is the state that the Presidential race — should, as seems likely, it be close — will come down to. Furthermore, Ohio is the only frontline state that can be systematically pitched at — Florida and Missouri are simply too heterogeneous to place any reliance on, and anyone who can win it in the primary is the best bet for being someone that a campaign for independents could be built around.

Santorum is currently leading Romney there, with an 11 point lead, high thirties to mid twenties, which is unsurprising given Santorum’s blue-collar appeal, former Pennsylvania base, and the fact that… Romney is just a dick, I mean he is just a dick.

So the result will be that Romney will take two states that the GOP are ever going to win, while Santorum potentially takes five solid Republican states, and the one they need to win if they are to have a chance at victory. With all the contests being proportional, he won’t put persuasive clear blue water between himself and Santorum, and the race will stagger on.

For Republicans that is now a frank disaster, not because of the proxy wars and slanging matches — which can sharpen a candidate — but because of the near-certainty that Romney will rack up more gaffes. His latest remarks at a NASCAR rally, about the cheap ponchos of the rain-soaked crowd, and how he knew a few NASCAR “team owners” were … well, there are no words.

Indeed, he may be the first candidate to lose an election solely on gaffes. Why? Because they have undercut the hard work Republicans have done to quell any residual class-consciousness among that subsection of American working people capable of being gulled by the “politics of envy” nonsense.

It is depressingly straightforward for the American right to sow that dual sense of possibility and mutual benefit among workers and the poor in their attitude to the rich, and to advance that notion that Bill Gates or Warren Buffett deserve all their money for licensing ones and zeroes and playing the odds — even when Buffett himself points out how absurd it is.

For anyone from the social democratic societies it can be difficult to bear the lapses into eulogising of “entrepreneurs” by even reliably Democratic voters. Democrats have to work very hard to try and unpick the attitude in order to advance a basic argument on fair taxation, without being seen to shun the whole idea of effort or enterprise.

Then along comes Romney and communicates directly with what one might call the “rational unconscious” — the bullshit-detector running beneath any particular ideology. Since the remarks come also from his id — the part that wants to scream “ha ha I’m richer than all you f-ckers you are nothing scum in your plastic rain ponchos, I have control” — it is a perfect meeting of unminds.

The effect of Romney’s gaffes is that they give one license to hate him, without feeling the cultural burden on guilt about envy. He’s not the rich guy you suspect doesn’t deserve his money — he’s the dick at the office who’s always looking for the opportunity to one-up. He’s not the guy who lives in a place you couldn’t possibly imagine — he’s the one who stays in his neighbourhood, builds a big house with his wife’s inheritance, and then stops talking to everyone else.

Everywhere across America people admonish each other with the phrase “don’t be that guy”. Mitt Romney is a photo-composite of “that guy”. Give him a fortnight and he’ll be asking the President of Liberia whether it’s twins or gas, and saying that he never had much time for anti-evolution arguments, but then he met people from Kansas and so on.

This is the man carrying forth the Republican hopes and dreams. No matter what the maths, there is no way that the nomination is nailed down yet.

STOP PRESS: even as I write this, Romney has done it again — saying he would not support a lunatic amendment that would allow any employer to opt out of providing health care on conscience grounds. Hours later, after some calls, he said he would support it. And on it goes…

Peter Fray

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