Friday, March 16, 2012

Mitt Romney's Plan

Previously, we examined which portions of the primary calendar are biased toward which candidates, based on which regions of the country are over-represented or under-represented. The month of March, post-Super Tuesday, had a mixed-bag schedule, since one-third were pro-Romney states, one-third were Midwestern states, and one-third of the contests were in the Deep South. Rick Santorum cleared a major hurdle by winning in Alabama and Mississippi--or to be more accurate, by preventing Newt Gingrich from winning there. Santorum is likely to take Louisiana as well, knocking Gingrich out of the race (either officially or effectively).

In spite of this, Mitt Romney has extended his delegate lead since Super Tuesday by leveraging his ability to win big on his home turf and compete everywhere else. Romney's path to a delegate majority is clear, while Santorum's campaign struggles to put forward a convincing case that they can do more than force a contested convention. What is Romney's plan to knock Santorum out of the race and put an end to the Republican primary?

As before, Romney expects to win the West and Northeast, while targeting certain Midwestern states to pick off. So far, his strategy has succeeded, producing narrow wins in Michigan and Ohio. The next state he hopes to win in Santorum's region is Illinois, voting on March 20th. Illinois is likely to be more favorable to Romney than Ohio, thanks to the Chicago area. But Illinois is still the kind of state Santorum absolutely must win in order to put together a delegate majority.

In April, the winner-take-all section of the primary begins. Not every state is winner-take-all in the traditional sense (i.e. all delegates are awarded to the winner of the state's popular vote). Each state has different variations, such as winner-take-all by district, or partially by popular vote, etc. The important thing is that it's easier for the winner of each state to take a disproportionately large number of delegates from April onward.

April's calendar is heavily tilted in favor of Romney, with six Northeastern contests, two Midwestern ones, and none in the South. On April 3rd, the first group votes: Maryland, D.C., and Wisconsin. Santorum is not on the ballot in D.C., and as a Northeastern state, Maryland favors Romney. Like other Midwestern states, Wisconsin favors Santorum. But unlike, say, Kansas, it's plausible for Romney to eke out a win Wisconsin. If Romney wins there, it will be devastating to Santorum; if Romney loses there, it doesn't matter much.

On April 24th, voting takes place in Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Romney is favored in all of these states but Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is pro-Santorum to be sure: It's not only a Midwestern state, it's his home state. Even so, if Santorum is reeling from other losses and Romney runs a good campaign there, it could possibly be competitive. A Romney win in Pennsylvania would knock Santorum out of the race. A Romney loss in Pennsylvania would do no harm; he's guaranteed a huge delegate haul from the other states voting that day.

By the end of April, Romney's delegate advantage will be massive. In the wake of Super Tuesday, Romney's campaign calculated--and it became the conventional wisdom--that Romney had taken 55% of the delegates up to that point, and needed to win about 48% of the remainder. By contrast, Santorum needed about 67% of the remainder to get a majority. Each time Santorum fails to hit the 67% mark, that figure increases, because he has to make up the difference. After the April 24th states vote, Santorum may need to win so many of the remaining delegates that even his campaign won't be able to make the case that it could happen.

What happens then? Santorum's only option is to try forcing a contested convention by preventing Romney from getting a majority. Right now, that's Santorum's only probable hope, but by the end of April the math may force him to admit it. The problem is that most Republican voters--regardless of which candidate they prefer--understand that a contested convention would have a disastrous effect on the winning candidate's chances in a general election. If Santorum is too far behind, his odds of getting the nomination (at the convention) will appear so small that a contested convention is merely an act of self-destruction for the Republican Party.

In such a case, some voters who lean Santorum (or Gingrich, if he retains a constituency) could flip to Romney. No longer seeing a Santorum victory as a possibility, they will vote Romney because that's what is necessary to defeat Barack Obama.

The May schedule is very favorable to Santorum, with two Midwestern states, five Southern states, and only Oregon starting from a pro-Romney position. Assuming Santorum hasn't already been knocked out in Pennsylvania, the first sign of Santorum's collapse would appear on May 8th, when Indiana, North Carolina, and West Virginia vote. All three states are pro-Santorum. If Santorum sweeps them, he could experience a "dead cat bounce" during May. The calendar would be favorable enough to give him a number of wins. Since the news media and pundits tend to overreact to short-term trends, they will proclaim it as a sign of grave weakness on Romney's part--until the June states put Romney over the top. But if Santorum has been weakened sufficiently, Indiana or North Carolina--even both--could vote for Romney, and the race will effectively be over.