How Santorum can win by losing

April 3 was a one-two punch in favor of Mitt Romney. Wisconsin was Rick Santorum’s last, best chance to slow Romney’s inevitability train. And the Tuesday engine pulling the Romney train, oddly enough, was driven by Barack Obama. In front of America’s newspaper editors, he all but declared his November opponent to be Romney. No, Obama didn’t name Mitt because he feared Rick. The president simply accepted reality.

Whether and when Santorum accepts reality is another question. He deserves full credit for making the most of very little money and overcoming a 17% reelection loss to emerge as the strongest anti-Romney candidate. Santorum has earned another run in 2016 or 2020. But it is three long weeks until the next set of primaries. He is guaranteed to lose four of five contests on that day, and he may even lose Pennsylvania — a potentially crippling embarrassment for his future plans. Santorum has no real chance to stop Romney and may squander the admiration he has won in the GOP base.

It is an easy choice for Santorum, if he thinks about it in the campaign lull to come. Yes, Santorum can win some May primaries in favorable territory, but to what end? Stepping aside is a classic case of winning by losing. If he perseveres in a candidacy, it might be a case of losing by winning.

— Larry J. Sabato

Romney’s favorability: Bad but not fatal

The long Republican campaign, and its frequent nastiness, has had at least one effect on Mitt Romney: It has made him quite unpopular in national surveys.

While Romney has never been seen all that favorably by the American people — in dozens of national polls taken since the start of President Obama’s term, Romney’s never been seen favorably by more than half the respondents — in 2011 his “favorable” rating was almost always higher than his “unfavorable” rating.

But by the time voting started, that changed, as the Republican race drove up Romney’s negatives among the general public. Consequently, in the last 22 national polls that have measured Romney’s favorability, his unfavorable rating has been higher than his favorable rating in all but two of those surveys, and his average favorable/unfavorable rating is 36.6%/47%, according to RealClearPolitics’ poll average.

President Obama, meanwhile, does much better in these ratings — 51.1% favorable, 43.6% unfavorable — according to the RealClearPolitics average.

Keep in mind that favorability is not the same as approval, or the presidential horse race. Obama’s approval is lower than his favorability — 47.8% approve, 47% disapprove according to the average — and Obama leads in the national head-to-head horse race with Romney, 47.6% to 43.6%.

Of course, Obama has had the luxury of not having to face a long, drawn-out primary. And favorability doesn’t necessarily mean all that much in a presidential race; John McCain’s final average favorability was 52.3% right before the 2008 election, and he of course still lost handily.

McCain always performed well in this favorability category. At roughly this time four years ago, Gallup reported his favorability at an eye-popping 67%, although that was an outlier.

Romney is probably not going to be well-liked or viewed highly favorably throughout the presidential race. But the fact that he’s hanging around in the horse race polls and that the president’s approval remains under 50% means that he’s probably better off being feared — by the Obama campaign — than loved by the public.

Kyle Kondik

General Services Administration kerfuffle: Obama’s first scandal?

Last May, friend of the Crystal Ball Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth wrote about the surprising lack of “scandals” in the Obama administration compared with previous administrations. Earlier this week, Nyhan said that “the first Obama scandal has arrived,” in the form of a story about excessive spending by the General Services Administration on a conference in Las Vegas. See Brendan’s post about his research on presidential “scandals” here, where he also explains why Solyndra and Operation Fast and Furious, while being widely covered black eyes for the Obama administration, didn’t fit his criteria as presidential scandals.

Kyle Kondik