The Republican primary campaign has lost its narrative.
As Mitt Romney trudges to the nomination in what has been for a month a two-man race with Rick Santorum, the inside game for delegates has largely replaced the battle of messages. And in the place of a struggle for the hearts and minds of voters has come a set of iron demographic laws.
In Rick Santorum's victory in Louisiana Saturday night, projected by the Associated Press the moment polls closed at 9:00 p.m., the key factors were the same three that have determined every recent primary: Income, education, and religion.
Romney draws support from voters who earn more than $100,000 a year; Santorum sweeps among those who make less than $30,000. Romney wins people with graduate degrees and performs well among college graduates; Santorum does best among voters whose last education was high school. Santorum is strong among born-again Christians. Romney sweeps Mormons by such wide margins that they matter even in relatively small raw numbers.
Exit polls also track ideological stances, and Santorum, as expected, picks up the votes of people looking for a conservative and in particular for an anti-abortion warrior. But in analyzing the apparent course of the Republican primary, time is the wrong axis to use. Though we narrators reach for narrative, there's little evidence that the results are the product of momentum or of strategy (outside the obscure territories where the better-organized Romney is sweeping). The outcome of the election appears to be an almost automatic product of the makeup of the electorate.
This grinding reality isn't terribly unusual in primary politics. It kicks in once candidates' identities and bases have been resolved. Those demographic reflexes set in after Super Tuesday in 2008, when states dominated by African-American and well-educated white voters gave Barack Obama the sense of incredible momentum in the "Potomac Primary," before heading into late spring losing Appalachian states to Hillary Clinton by huge margins. It's hard to remember now that she won West Virginia by a stunning 41% margin on May 13; she took Kentucky by 36% a week later.
There are some factors that don't show up in the exit polls. An evangelical voter in the Chicago suburbs is still more likely to be moderate that her counterpart outside Baton Rouge, for instance.
But Romney appears, based on a rough calculus of who makes up the electorate in the states to come, likely to lose nearly half of them, a running but forgettable humiliation for the likely nominee. Santorum will claim victories as long as he stays in the race, an unearned validation for a candidate stuck in second place. And those of us writing about the primary will find ourselves running out of things to say.