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What We Still Don’t Know About Mitt Romney

A week ago, after Rick Santorum swept the GOP contests in Mississippi and Alabama, Mitt Romney faced a choice: He could shake up his campaign following the unexpected setback, or double down on the strategy he’d been deploying for weeks, which meant touting his large delegate-lead, portraying himself as inevitable, and exploiting his enormous financial advantage. 

Romney chose the latter, and the decision paid off in Illinois last night. He scored a convincing victory by massively outspending Santorum and stringing together his usual coalition of college grads, affluent suburbanites and city-dwellers, and Republicans preoccupied with the economy and ousting Barack Obama. 

In retrospect, the decision was a no-brainer for Romney. Throughout his career, the former governor has evinced two qualities above all else: He is both risk-averse and hyper-rational. In the aftermath of his two Southern losses, both those qualities nudged him in the same direction. The risk-aversion militated against a major course-correction, and the rationality told him the old strategy was highly likely to work in Illinois given his demographic advantages in the state (whose Republican electorate was less conservative, less evangelical, better educated, and wealthier than Mississippi and Alabama). 

What we don’t yet know about Romney is what happens when these two forces pull him in opposite directions. Suppose, for example, that today’s big prize hadn’t been Illinois but Texas—a state hospitable to Santorum and rich with delegates—or even a mid-sized state like Indiana, which, with its larger blue-collar population (22 percent with a bachelor’s degree versus 30 percent in Illinois), would have been much tougher for Romney to lock down. Would he have preferred to play it safe and run the real risk of a game-changing loss? Or would he have gone the arguably more rational route and overhauled his game plan? 

This matters, of course, because when it comes time to take on Barack Obama, it’s very likely that the cautious approach will be a loser for Romney. With unemployment falling and Obama’s poll numbers generally rising, Romney’s businessman-economic critique of the president—the one he wielded in with only minor alteration in his Illinois victory speech—seems destined to fail. And, I suspect, few people are likely to be as aware of this as time goes by as Romney himself. (As the candidate told Laura Ingraham in January, making the argument that the economy is getting better but people should oppose Obama anyway may not be compelling, but it “happens to be the truth.”)

Will Romney have the guts to take a massive gamble—to make a move that offers him a higher probability of success than his current strategy but also a greater chance of spectacular failure? I have in mind here something like a long-ball vice presidential pick (maybe a sitting Democratic governor?) or a balanced-budget plan that increases taxes on the wealthy. He’s ambitious and clear-eyed enough to see the benefit of such a move against a heavily-favored incumbent—and, at least in the latter case, he may even believe in it—but also so lacking in nerve that it’s hard to imagine him pulling the trigger.

Unfortunately, whatever we've learned about Romney during the GOP primaries, it hasn’t been the answer to that question. As in Illinois, the cautious approach has generally been the right approach for a candidate with his mix of assets and liabilities. In fact, given the way things went tonight, with Romney building what looks to be an insurmountable delegate lead, I suspect we’re not going to know where he comes down on this question until the moment of truth this summer. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber