Monday, March 19, 2012

"Romney Has No Aloha"

Mitt Romney can afford to buy his own private island.  He doesn't have to.  He already owns all the islands under U.S. control, or at least the Republican neighborhoods on them.  He swamped Rick "You Puerto Ricans should all learn English" Santorum in yesterday's Puerto Rico primary, adding the Isle of Enchantment to his archipelago of victories in Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas, American Samoa and Hawaii.  At this rate, he's a cinch to carry Manhattan and might even win Madagascar.  Romney should root for Texas or Louisiana to float off into the Gulf of Mexico so that he can finally pick up a win in the true South.

Romney isn't the darling of the islands because of his tropical flair or his hula moves.  He's winning America's most remote territories thanks to superior organization and financial strength.  He and Ron Paul are the only Republicans who truly have 50-state campaigns, or, more accurately, 56.  It's no coincidence that they're the only GOP candidates who have run before.  They've learned from past experience and they've built transcontinental operations, unlike Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who are living state-to-state, cobbling together teams only as they survive long enough to need them. 

In Maui last week, it was clear that Ron Paul was the people's choice.  Hawaii's first-ever Republican presidential caucus coincided with a "Day of Liberation" declared by the "Reinstated Hawaiian Government" movement, which seeks to restore Hawaii's monarchy and its independence as a sovereign island nation (perhaps Puerto Rico can replace it as the 50th state once everyone in San Juan learns English to Senator Santorum's liking).  Monarchists paraded around Maui, honking their horns and waving Hawaiian flags.  Then many of them trooped into their local caucus meeting and voted for Paul (others didn't vote at all, refusing to participate in legitimizing the federal government). 

The local Paul campaign wooed supporters with free tours of the nearby lava caves.  Romney's team countered with free samples from an organic mango farm.  But the Republican frontrunner had more than fruit slices up his sleeve.  He'd long ago locked up the support of the local party apparatus and Hawaii's GOP establishment.  He ran a sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign on heavily populated Oahu, especially around the Brigham Young University campus on the North Shore.  He sent his son Matt to rally supporters on the eve of the caucus.

Romney eked out a victory on Maui, edging Paul by just nine votes.  Paul beat him by 22 votes to take the Big Island, Hawaii.  Statewide, Santorum was running a surprisingly strong second, probably buoyed by his wins in Alabama and Mississippi a few hours earlier (the results there reached the islands just as Hawaiian Republicans were heading to their caucuses), until the ballots were counted in Honolulu and in that Mormon cluster to the north.

Romney won an astounding 92% of the votes on Oahu's North Shore, enough to pull away from the field and win the state caucus by 20 points.  Paul finished a distant third overall, bitterly disappointing his Maui brigade.  The victory guaranteed Romney at least nine and probably 12 of Hawaii's 20 delegates, padding his already 2-to-1 delegate advantage over Santorum, and more than offsetting his narrow losses to Santorum in the two Southern states (Romney also won all of American Samoa's delegates that night).  Yes, Santorum won the evening's headlines thanks to his Deep South sweep, but Romney knows convention delegates are the name of the game, and he went home with the most.

Still, the enthusiasm gap plagues Romney, even in places where he wins.  Two Hawaiians who caucused for Paul described him as a "true patriot" and "a man who knows who he is and stays true to himself."  When I asked what they thought of Romney, one made a face and shook his head in disgust.  The other put it bluntly: "Romney has no aloha," he told me.  "No soul.  There is no spirit inside him."  I pointed out that most Hawaiians must disagree, because Romney wound up with more than twice as many votes as their man.  "No," said the Paul voter.  "They know he has no aloha.  They vote for him because they go along with what the party tells them to do, or because they think he can beat Obama and Ron Paul can't.  But he can't beat Obama.  Obama has a lot of aloha, way too much for Romney."

Even though he won this caucus, Romney can say "aloha" to his chances of winning Hawaii in November, just as he would say "adios" to Puerto Rico if that island's voters were allowed to cast ballots in the general election.  Both lean heavily to the Democrats (native son Obama carried Hawaii with 72% of the vote in 2008).  But right now Romney's only goal is to do whatever it takes to win the Republican nomination.  That means amassing 1144 delegates by the time the primaries come to an end in one of his adopted home states, Utah, in June.  The way he sees it, he doesn't need aloha, or soul, or the force, or whatever you want to call it.  He only needs numbers.  He's veering far to the right to try to get them, dangerously far, and he'll have to stay there at least through August to keep the nomination from slipping away, leaving him precious little time to sprint back to the middle to lure independents from Obama in the fall.  History hasn't been kind to candidates who value organizational strength over a passionate message, who rely on money and party clout to beat back an ideologically purer primary challenger.  Just ask Gerald Ford in 1976, or Fritz Mondale in 1984.  Or even Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1996.

There are no more islands on the Republican primary calendar (well, except Rhode Island, which isn't one).  To clinch the nomination, Romney's going to have to find his footing on terra firma, and stop Santorum head-to-head in states where they're both actually competing.  He'll need to overcome conservative passion for his rivals in the heart of the mainland, in Illinois and Indiana, Wisconsin and New York, and especially Texas and California.  He'll try to win there the same way he won in Hawaii: with a finely tuned organizational machine and strong turnout in the urban centers.  It's probably too late for him to learn the hula.