In theory, Mitt Romney could regain his lead against Obama among independents as quickly as he lost it. But I don’t think that is likely to happen. Romney’s plunge isn’t related to any particular gaffe. More than anything, it’s a demonstration that familiarity can breed contempt. The more people get to know R Money, the less they like him. It also helps that the economy is improving and the mood of the country is softening, and that part could change. I can’t say that Romney is utterly doomed, but he’s not going to win a popularity contest with the president.

Now, over at the Great Orange Satan, there is a bit of a flamewar going on in reaction to Markos Moulitsas’ launch of Operation Hilarity (helpfully explained by Chris Bowers here). The response was immediate with two handwringing diaries in opposition to the operation reaching the highest levels of the Recommended List. And, then Markos responded with his own recommended diary. What is Operation Hilarity?

It’s not complicated. The Republicans have decided to hold open primaries in several upcoming states (Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee and Vermont). What does that mean? It means that anyone can vote in their primaries. You don’t have to be registered as a Republican to vote. In other words, you are invited to vote in the Republican primary. If you choose not to because you aren’t a Republican, that’s your choice. It’s like turning down a dinner invitation because you hate the hosts. But showing up isn’t unethical. It won’t subvert the democratic process. It’s not even a dirty trick. They asked you to come. If they didn’t want your opinion, they would have closed the primary.

Now, it’s true that the reason both parties leave some primaries open is because they have found that an open primary helps them attract new members to their party and to motivate independents to get involved in their campaigns. They don’t really want people showing up to vote for their weakest candidate just to cause trouble. But here’s the thing: they are legally allowed to ban you from voting in their primaries and caucuses unless you are willing to join their party. Isn’t that more offensive to pure democratic principles than you accepting their invitation to vote and expressing your true opinion about who you’d like to see them nominate?

In truth, neither their decision to exclude you (in most states) nor your decision to participate (where you are allowed to) are anti-democratic. It’s their party and they can do what they want to. And it’s your vote, and if you want to cast it, that’s what you ought to do.

However, the premise of Operation Hilarity is that Mitt Romney is a better general election candidate than Rick Santorum. So, we ought to help Santorum to either win the nomination or to, at least, prolong Romney’s agony and make him spend resources.

To be clear, I’m all for that. But I am not certain that Romney is a stronger general election candidate. And the shape of the victory would be different. Romney’s appeal, where it exists at all, is in New England where he will win no states in November (excepting, perhaps, New Hampshire). Obama is showing his greatest vulnerability in the Rust Belt, not the South, not the Southwest. Romney can’t exploit Obama’s weakness anywhere near as well as Santorum can. Santorum can make the election a tribal affair of us (white Christians) against them (black, Kenyan, socialist, elitists). Romney will be too busy explaining Bain Capital and Mormon underwear to make that kind of connection.

Either way, (assuming no major crises take place) the election will be a deeply unpleasant and mostly deplorable affair with Obama winning in a landslide. I think he can hold Romney under 40%. I don’t think he can hold Santorum under 40%.

Most importantly, we won’t win the House back by doing well in North Carolina and Virginia. We’ll win it back by winning huge victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri. The shape of a victory over Romney is better than the shape of a victory over Santorum.

Lastly, in the event that I’m wrong and one of these two clowns is going to be our next president, we clearly would rather that clown be Mitt Romney than Rick Santorum.

So, go participate in Operation Hilarity if you want to. It’s not unethical or underhanded to do so. But be careful what you wish for. Romney’s doing badly enough without our help.

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