Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mitt's Math Problem

Politicians and commentators alike argue that one of the main reasons the GOP nomination is not only still up in the air, but may result in a contested convention, has to do with changes that were made to the way in which primary and caucus delegates are awarded. In the past, states routinely awarded delegates in a "winner take all" format that gave all delegates to the victor, whether the margin of victory was 1 vote or 1 million.  This year, many states are apportioning delegates based on the percentage of the vote a candidate wins (so long as they pass a threshold) and/or by congressional district, thereby ensuring that in most contests, more than one candidate is awarded delegates.  This change, pundits argue, has diluted Mitt Romney's victories, embellished Rick Santorum's support and encouraged Newt Gingrich to stay in the race in the hopes that a brokered convention results in, well, who knows.  

Like most pieces of conventional wisdom, this bit has some superficial appeal.  After all, instead of winning all of Ohio's 66 delegates or Michigan's 30 delegates, Romney split those states' delegates with Senator Santorum, who received 21 delegates in Ohio and 14 in Michigan.  Of course, the same is true for Romney in states he lost to Santorum, like Oklahoma, where Santorum netted 14 delegates to Romney's 13 even though Santorum beat Romney by more than 5 percent of the vote. The net result (depending on whose count you believe) is that while Romney has amassed a healthy lead in the delegate count, it will be difficult for him to reach the 1,144 delegates he needs to win the nomination.

So there you have it, right?  But for that pesky change in the way delegates are apportioned, Governor Romney would have sewed the nomination up long ago, and instead of draining resources to fight off Santorum and Gingrich, could start training his fire on President Obama.  There are at least two problems with this narrative.  First, the winner take all vs. apportionment trope fails to account for the fact that successful candidates can and do collect all (or almost all) delegates even in states where proportional allocation takes place.  For example, Mitt Romney won Massachusetts, a state with proportional distribution of delegates, but won all of them because of his huge win. Similarly, Newt Gingrich won South Carolina by a wide margin, and even though it awards delegates based on which candidate wins each congressional district, Gingrich still collected 23 of its 25 delegates.  

Second, and less reported, is the fact that proportional allocation is actually benefitting Romney, not hurting him.  I did a quick back of the envelope calculation of the states that have already voted and assumed that all of them were winner take all.  In that case, Romney's delegate lead over Santorum shrinks remarkably.  Under the current system, Romney has a more than, or near 2:1 lead in a sampling of counts: 495-252 (New York Times & Wall Street Journal), 496-236 (Real Clear Politics), and 471-218 (CBS News).  Because of this lead, his campaign has leaned heavily on the "math" argument that no other candidate is in a position to claim the nomination, something the mainstream media has largely internalized by consistently referring to Romney as the inevitable nominee.  Flip the numbers to winner take all, however, and that narrative would significantly change. Under that scenario, Romney's count goes up to 533, but Santorum's count nearly doubles, to 415, making the race, at least on paper, appear far closer.  

And if your campaign is, as Romney's appears to be, predicated on math, it is a far more persuasive argument to make when your lead is nearly two to one than it is the the gap is a mere 120 delegates.  For that, Romney should be thankful, but the other part of the media narrative suggesting that Romney's slog to the nomination has been stymied by these new rules is equally faulty.  Romney's weakness has been hidden and protected by an onslaught of Super PAC advertising on his behalf.  While Romney's campaign has spent money as quickly as it has collected it, the backstop of tens of millions in Restore our Future advertising has done the "blocking and tackling" that is opening the holes through which the Governor is attempting to run to daylight.  At critical junctures in the campaign, where Romney risked losing control entirely - between South Carolina and Florida, after Santorum's "sweep" of Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota and in Ohio on Super Tuesday - Super PAC advertising dollars simply overwhelmed the meager resources of Romney's competitors.  

While some in the media, and many Republicans who speak on the record, suggest that this long primary season will actually benefit the nominee once chosen, that too is a faulty premise.  The easy analogy is to the 2008 Democratic primary season, where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton fought until the bitter end in June before Obama secured the delegates necessary to win the nomination.  Again, this analogy has some superficial appeal, but if you scratch an inch below the surface, the similarities quickly unravel.  First, Democratic enthusiasm, in the form of voter turnout, was off the charts in 2008.  This year?  Republican turnout is flat or down in most of the states that have voted thus far.  Second, Obama and Clinton were both viewed as serious candidates, "rock stars" of the party who were raising tens of millions of dollars and taken seriously as future commanders in chief.  This year?  Sure, Romney is probably "qualified" to be President, but if he is Hillary in this analogy, his opponents are not Obama, but rather, Tom Vilsack or Chris Dodd, fringe characters who have raised little money and were polling in the low single digits through much of the pre-Iowa contest.  Third, the idea that if Romney could beat these lightweights, he would morph into the competitive, appealing and moderate challenger that can give Obama a close race belies the fact that in his obsequiousness and phony pandering to the right wing elements of the party (Personhood Amendment, defunding Planned Parenthood, immigration, etc.) a switch back to the moderate center is impossible. 

Which brings me to the final critical piece in this puzzle and it is something that Senator Santorum pointed out and I happen to agree with.  While Governor Romney has been able to paper over his flip flops and minimize the damage of his myriad gaffes (the $10,000 bet, his fleet of Cadillacs, not caring about the poor, etc.) because his opponents are underfunded and disorganized, that will not be the case in the general election.  The President's re-election campaign is well funded, strategic and knows how to go for the jugular (even if it's done with a scalpel and not a chef's knife).  The idea that the modest amount of opposition push back his opponents have been able to generate will prepare Romney for the blitzkrieg of advertising, media and targeted strategies Obama will rain down on him is absurd and the extended primary season will do little to prepare him for it. 

Mitt's team may bemoan the extended primary season, but the simple fact is he is a weak candidate that the party is tepidly endorsing.  Were these contests winner take all, his weakness would be further exposed and without the overwhelming financial advantage his Super PAC affords him, he may not even be in the race anymore.

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