Sunday, March 4, 2012

Was Michigan a Crippling Blow for Santorum?

I think it really was but first, let me tell you all the reasons why you might think I'm wrong.

First, Romney's victory in Michigan was not a blowout and he had to employ some messy backroom dealings to win the most delegates. Furthermore, it is likely that Romney will lose badly in Georgia, the biggest Super Tuesday prize in terms of delegates. Indeed, when you look at the Super Tuesday map, there are a few other delegate-rich states where Romney will likely lose including Oklahoma and Tennessee. Finally, the latest polls seem to indicate Romney is still just a couple of points behind in Ohio. Romney will surely win more delegates in Ohio because of the ineptness of the Santorum campaign but a popular-vote loss in Ohio would really look bad. As for the delegates, I suppose one would rather win more delegates than not but (and I've argued quite a bit with Jon Keller about this) the delegate count is really irrelevant in just the same way that the Super Delegates really didn't matter in the end in 2008. There was simply no way the person "perceived to win" more states and more delegates was going to have the nomination taken away from him (or her) in 2008 because of elites in the party and it isn't going to happen in 2012 either.

In addition to all of that, there is the possibility that Gingrich will bow out of the race after Super Tuesday because he'll only win his "home" state of Georgia and won't be very competitive elsewhere. A little more than a month ago, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck posted some data to support their argument that Gingrich or Santorum dropping out would not help the other. In other words, they argue quite a bit of the "not Romney" vote would go to Romney rather than just coalescing behind the last "not Romney" standing. Nate Silver presented at least some data to contradict Sides and Vavreck.

So, that's a lot of reasons to think Romney has not quite locked down the nomination. But here's why the race for the nomination really is over.

1) The Narrative - The way Romney won Michigan was more important than the fact that he only won by 3 points. He was trailing in most polls (by a lot in some) until about a week before the primary. Because Michigan is one of Romney's "home" states, the race there became a key test of his campaign. So, expectations were set low (ie, "he may lose") and it was viewed as important (ie, "he has to win"). By winning, even by a little bit, Romney emerged with something a lot more important than delegates. He emerged with momentum and the sense that his campaign had exceeded expectations.

2) Organization - Ohio is not the only place the Santorum campaign's lack of organization has hurt them. Virginia votes on Super Tuesday and both Gingrich and Santorum failed to get on the ballot there. More generally, the Santorum campaign has been remarkably inept in its messaging. Santorum himself has a tendency to say things that are controversial. In some senses, this is what many of his supporters like about him. But it would help a lot to have a real campaign organization that would put the candidate's comments in context or put the right spin on them and it would help to have a campaign organization that can respond to Romney's criticism's of the candidate. These are all but absent.

3) Gingrich - Does Gingrich leave the race after Super Tuesday? My prediction is that he won't. Alabama and Mississippi vote one week later on March 13. I'm not a psychologist but Newt Gingrich's ego doesn't need much in the way of evidence to convince him America fundamentally needs him. His "big" win in Georgia might be enough and, if Santorum does even a little worse than expected on Tuesday, Gingrich will have even more reason to believe he is the alternative to Romney everyone has been waiting for. I know this is silly. But it is really how Gingrich thinks. He's silly.

4) Money - You may have heard that Mitt Romney is independently wealthy. Even with his fundraising troubles, Romney has the money to go on and the others simply don't. They can go on in the technical sense but they don't have much money and that gap is going to grow after Super Tuesday as fewer and fewer people believe there is a path to victory for Santorum or Gingrich. How bad is the money situation for Gingrich? To date, he's still raised less money than Rick Perry ... who quit the race for the second time before South Carolina and endorsed Gingrich. How bad is the money situation for Santorum? Even accounting for the $4.5M he's raised so far in the first quarter of 2012, he's still raised less money than Michele Bachmann and about the same amount as Jon Huntsman ... who quit the race after New Hampshire because nobody outside of New Hampshire supported him. The trickle of money Gingrich and Santorum were raising is going to dry up further after Tuesday.

I'm not saying Santorum (or Gingrich as I've stated above) will drop out after Tuesday. But the race is likely to be effectively over. And, when we look back, I think it will be the case that Michigan was where the race really ended. Before Michigan, Romney was in some trouble and there was a lot of discussion of whether someone else would jump in the race if Romney was defeated there. After Michigan, Romney has been viewed as back in the driver's seat and he followed up with a win in Washington where polls suggested he was losing just a week and a half ago. The worst-case scenario (losing Ohio by a small margin) on Tuesday still has Romney winning most of the states and the vast majority of delegates across all 10 states. There is simply not likely to be any more oxygen for Santorum or Gingrich.

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