I'll leave it to others to make the general pronouncements about how Mitt Romney's middling performance Tuesday night against deeply flawed and overmatched opponents showed yet again what an astonishingly weak frontrunner he is. Instead, I want to focus in on a geographic irony that emerged more clearly Tuesday night than it has in the earlier primaries. Namely, that Romney does well in the places where Barack Obama does well, and he does poorly in the places where Obama does poorly. This was true in Ohio, where Romney won easily in the big metro areas of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus while losing to Santorum in the rural counties, much as Obama and Hillary Clinton split the state in 2008. But it's even more striking when one considers Oklahoma and Tennessee. Romney did terribly in those states—in Tennessee, he won only in Nashville's Davidson County. And those two states are in the heart of what I've come to consider Obama-loathing territory: the nearly contiguous swath of this country where John McCain performed better than George W. Bush had four years earlier, even as McCain performed far worse than Bush overall. This band runs from southwestern Pennsylvania, down through the rest of Appalachia and west across the upland South, encompassing most of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma before petering out in north-central Texas (Rick Perry country!)
Now, one has to be careful in making such comparisons. After all, the voters who helped Romney win the cities in Ohio are not the voters who won them for Obama (for one thing, the Republican turnout in Ohio was virtually entirely white.) But still, it's possible to see general election implications in this irony. On the upside for Romney, one could argue that he will be as competitive as a Republican can hope to be in the metro suburbs of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Colorado, etc. The post-Reagan comeback of the Democrats is due pretty much entirely to the party having won back well-educated, suburban voters in big metro areas. (Remember: Suburban Chicago, New York and Philly used to be Republican, and not so long ago.) Republicans need a nominee who can hold his own in suburban St. Louis, Cleveland, and Denver.
But the downside for Romney in this ironic alignment between his geographic strengths and Obama's is that it underscores how poorly suited he is for this moment in his party's trajectory—and for the campaign he himself is trying to run. Jon Chait had a sharp piece in last week's New York framing this election as what Republicans see as their last chance to stop Obama's socialist tide before the demographics of the electorate truly turn against them. As Chait notes, Romney himself has been casting the election in these terms with his talk about how he's going to “take back our country” and warnings that “We are only inches away from no longer being a free economy.” It is a campaign that is geared toward the resentful rump of the party—but Romney is losing the places where these voters are concentrated in greatest numbers. That doesn't mean he's going to lose these places in November—contempt for Obama will still bring plenty of voters out, no matter what they think about Romney; I doubt Obama's going to be setting up shop in Tulsa anytime soon. But it does suggest that Romney's paint-by-numbers anti-Obama message is a poor fit for him—such a poor fit that the voters who should be most receptive to it are seeing through it for the cynical confection that it is.
follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis