Thursday, March 15, 2012

On the State of the Republican Nomination Race, Post-AL/MS

A few lingering thoughts from the aftermath of Tuesday night's/Wednesday morning's contests in Alabama, American Samoa, Hawaii and Mississippi:
  1. Any day Santorum doesn't cut into Romney's delegate lead is an opportunity lost. 
  2. Any day Romney doesn't grow his delegate lead is an opportunity lost.
  3. Momentum is dead. ...until it isn't.
  4. In-or-out Newt?
The story on Wednesday was the same story as the Wednesday following Super Tuesday. Delegates were on the line and no one cut into Mitt Romney's delegate advantage, but Romney also failed to break through once again in the South. FHQ has not pulled any punches in saying that Santorum has no mathematical shot at 1144 if the current dynamic in this race is extended through the rest of the race. None. But as I have also pointed out, that fact alone does not mean that Romney is a shoo in to get to a delegate majority himself.

I won't belabor the point in #1 above anymore as it is fairly obvious, but #2 deserves some attention.  Any series of contests that passes where Mitt Romney does not significantly increase his delegate lead -- inching closer to 1144 -- removes from the former Massachusetts governor another passel of delegates that a larger portion of which would serve as cushion for a solid frontrunner. Put another way, any time Romney is not hitting that seemingly magic number of 48% of the delegates, his campaign's job of getting him to the requisite number of delegates necessary to clinch the nomination gets slightly more difficult.

So, on Tuesday, Romney gained but he didn't gain. He added to his lead in the delegate count but did not necessarily help his chances of getting to the goal of 1144.

What we all witnessed Tuesday night was not momentum. There is no momentum in this race. Deep South voters did not exactly reject the notion of a Gingrich candidacy and they didn't exactly fully embrace Santorum (or Romney for that matter) either. The two candidates who would be expected to do well in the South did so well in the South. The presidential primary process in 2012 has progressed far enough now that we have a fair amount of data at our disposal. This is oversimplifying matters, but Mitt Romney is likely to do well in the west and in the northeast, Santorum has carved out a stronghold in the prairie states and stretching into the South and Newt Gingrich has been reduced to a niche southern candidate who is trying to play delegate spoiler.

No, Romney has still not answered the "Southern question" and he isn't likely to (at least not until maybe North Carolina at the earliest1). But the take home here is that this is all rather predictable based on the regional alignment described above. We can kind of eyeball it and say that Santorum is likely to do well in Missouri and Louisiana later in March and that Maryland, DC, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut are states where Mitt Romney would be expected to do well. And that is the way the race has been. The volatile "swings" have not been all that volatile. Heck, they haven't really been swings so much as the establishment of a pattern in this race. There will only be momentum in this race when and if someone wins, and probably wins consistently thereafter, on another candidate's turf.

If you read closely enough, you will have already noted that FHQ made no mention of either the Rust Belt or the midwest. That is because that is the only area where the predictable is not all that predictable. Santorum has come close twice now to beating Romney on Romney turf, but failed to break through in either Michigan or Ohio. Illinois (March 20), Wisconsin (April 3) and Pennsylvania (April 24) offer Santorum an opportunity to change that.2

What potentially shakes all of this up is the presence or absence of Newt Gingrich in the race. If Gingrich is not in the game in Michigan or Ohio, it is not a stretch to see the overall balance shifting toward Santorum in those states. [I know. The Santorum campaign has been making this claim for weeks.] And that could be an issue again in Illinois or Wisconsin, where something like a second conservative candidate not being on the ballot could benefit the other conservative candidate if that candidate (Santorum) is close again against Romney in the popular vote.

The Gingrich impact is more black and white in states that look to be close, but outside of the Rust Belt, the former speaker's influence is more nuanced. Does that help/hurt Romney or Santorum? Well, that all depends on what the delegate selection rules are on the state level. To the extent that Gingrich is able to clear the necessary threshold in the popular vote to qualify for delegates, he is likely to hurt Romney/help Santorum (by hurting Romney) by peeling off delegates in proportional states. But in the few remaining (strictly) winner-take-all states and the winner-take-all by congressional district states, Gingrich's presence is likely to help Romney/hurt Santorum. Coming in third over and over again does nothing for Gingrich in those states. It nets him no delegates. But coming in third siphons off votes and potentially delegates from Santorum, helping Romney to gain delegates at a healthier clip.

...if Romney is presumably the one in the lead in that three candidate scenario.

Now, if Gingrich is out of the race, it does not necessarily reverse those trends above, but may in some cases. If Gingrich is out then the proportional state delegates are allocated among just two candidates. That is a plus for Romney and Santorum. It gets Romney closer to 1144 and Santorum closer to Romney if he is the beneficiary of a consolidation of the conservative vote and thus the delegate winner. You can see this more in a state like North Carolina than in a state like Rhode Island though; both of which are strictly proportional. In the winner-take-all by congressional district states, Santorum is again potentially able to take advantage of that consolidation to win some or more districts in states like Maryland or Wisconsin, but while still facing the possibility of losing the statewide vote and the at-large delegates in the process. [The bonus there is that quite a few of these winner-take-all by congressional district states are fairly blue and thus have a limited number of at-large delegates. Losing them, then, is not a killer if you are Rick Santorum.]

The bottom line is that this race is clearer now. We know where the candidates' strengths are now and where the true battlegrounds lie. We know that to settle this even further is going to take candidates winning on the others' turf. [This is more necessary for Santorum/Gingrich than for Romney.] We know that, right now, the only strategy Santorum and Gingrich have -- absent the sort of "winning on the other guy's turf" shake up described above -- is to keep Romney under 1144, sending this to the convention. We know that "keep Romney under 1144" is a suitable strategy when the candidate promoting it is winning, but is bound to be much less effective if they are not (and by extension someone is moving toward 1144). We know that Missouri and Louisiana are good targets for Santorum. We know that much of April shapes up well for Mitt Romney. We know that absent any shake up Romney is on track to get not only the most delegates but to get at or around the 1144 mark.

What we don't know is if Santorum can break through on Romney's turf. Illinois would be a good place to start. Otherwise time is -- and delegates are -- running out.

1 North Carolina represents the last best hope more than likely for Romney to break through and avoid being the only potential Republican nominee to have been swept in the South during the primaries.

2 Yes, the homestate advantage Santorum has in Pennsylvania might offset -- or more than offset -- what might be a slight Romney advantage in a state like the Keystone state.

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1 comment:

Joshua said...

"North Carolina represents the last best hope more than likely for Romney to break through and avoid being the only potential Republican nominee to have been swept in the South during the primaries."

But Romney already won in Florida and Virginia, and by most standards at least one of those states is in the South.