Maybe Money Isn't So Powerful After All

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Mitt Romney outspent Santorum six-to-one leading up to Super Tuesday, but he still underperformed expectations.

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Mitt Romney is single-handedly demonstrating the limits of money in politics.

Yes, yes, some argue that the end of the world as we know it came with the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. Corporations and labor unions were unshackled, with their free speech rights prompting a flood of new money into the political system.

The little guy would be screwed.

But if there is a shred of doubt that money is simply a piece of the puzzle in getting elected, look again at one of the many weaknesses displayed by Romney on Super Tuesday.

He outspent Rick Santorum roughly six-to-one in those primaries. And what happened? He way underperformed expectations, turnout was awful even in his beloved Massachusetts, and he showed surprising weakness among independents and middle class voters (except in Massachusetts).

President Obama might note that he won more voters, namely 1,055,769, in losing the 2008 Ohio primary to Hillary Rodham Clinton than Romney and Santorum attracted combined on Tuesday.

When it came to those critical independent and middle class voters, an inherently weak Santorum outperformed Romney everywhere but Georgia, where Newt Gingrich topped everybody.

One can be very anxious about the potency of money, including all those anonymous contributions flooding the system, most especially in local campaigns. If you outspend a rival by six to one in a city council race, you may have to be a certifiable nincompoop, or recently indicted, to not have the clear upper hand.

But, as Romney is exhibiting on the political system's largest stage, one's message, background, response to the unexpected, and views on issues play a part, too. And, remember, the campaigns of his two main rivals, Santorum and Gingrich, are so flawed that they have failed to get it together to make it onto the ballots in some states.

"The presidential primary process is revealing of your character and, in 2008, showed how strong both Obama and Hillary Clinton were," said Thomas Bowen, a political aide to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who worked on Obama's U.S. Senate and presidential campaigns.

"This process is exposing Romney's weaknesses," he said. "A challenge is also an opportunity to show what you're made of. Here, it's not just an inability to put things away but to make voters understand that he understands them."

And speaking of Obama, one might remember that he had significant early problems when he announced his candidacy on a cold day in Springfield, Illinois, in 2007. There were elements of his party reflexively drawn to Clinton. But he was also not a very well-known quantity at the time, his mini-celebrity aside.

It's quite different with Romney, who has arguably been running for the job for eight years. He's known to many, even if many Republican voters seem confused as to what he stands for.

It's sort of a political counterpart to the great "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Tom Hanks moderated a game show called, "Jew, Not a Jew." It was based on the Jewish pastime of trying to guess who's one of the tribe, much like many other groups surely do among themselves.

Here, the show seems to be, "Conservative, Not a Conservative," and contestants are having a rough time discerning where to place the GOP frontrunner.

There's no great moral to the story other than Romney is held in such deep suspicion by the Republican base that even the financial fruits of the Citizens United decision will only take him so far.

"Everything he does reinforces the caricature of a Wall Street Republican who doesn't understand how most Americans live," Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based Democratic consultant who handles campaigns nationwide, says. "There's nothing wrong with wealth. What people resent is a separate set of rules for the wealthy and the rest of us pay the price. Romney can't seem to get out of that frame and it's killing him."

He can spend as much as he wants until kingdom comes, it may never win over some of those Republicans and much-need independents.

Given the general election electoral map, he could still be formidable. But, as suggested Tuesday, he might not be quite as formidable as the Obama camp had justifiably been fretting not too long ago.

Image: Reuters

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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