Santorum vs. Obama in 2012?

Could this be the matchup for November?

Tuesday night Rick Santorum, who Mitt Romney said “was at the desperate end” of his campaign, won primaries in Mississippi and Alabama to keep what George H.W. Bush called “the big mo.”   On the map the race looks close; the delegate count shows Romney with a strong lead.

Right now Mitt Romney has 498 of the 1144 delegates needed to win, Rick Santorum trails with 239, Newt Gingrich has 139 and Ron Paul only 69.   Moreover, despite Santorum’s successes on Tuesday, Romney actually increased his delegate lead by solid wins in Hawaii and American Samoa.   If you read the pundits the writing is on the wall, Mitt will be the Republican nominee.

Not so fast.

One thing we’ve learned in primary season is that races can shift on a dime.  We’ve seen state polls vary radically within a few days, it’s too early to say everything is set in stone.   Another thing we learned, however, is that math is indeed the language of God in terms of counting delegates.   In 2008 Hillary Clinton ended the primary season with a string of wins but couldn’t overcome the delegate advantage Obama racked up early on in caucus states.  The first lesson gives Santorum hope, the second gives cause to suspect Romney’s going to get it no matter what.

Despite a strong comeback, Hillary Clinton could never overcome the delegate math in 2008

Romney’s math includes a few “winner take all” states, including delegate rich California (172 delegates) and New Jersey (50 delegates).   Yet California’s recent polls suggest a lot of possible drift in the race.  Romney’s best poll shows Romney just over 40%, others have him just over 30%.   If Gingrich becomes a non-factor and Santorum keeps momentum going, one could imagine an upset for Santorum — and suddenly the math is on Santorum’s side.   In New Jersey Romney’s also not getting much over 30% with Santorum close.  A shift of momentum to Santorum could cause an upset there.

Playing with CNN’s interactive delegate counter (note: if you do, they have a major glitch – they have California as proportional representation when it’s winner take all, so adjust for that), and assuming Gingrich declines, Santorum and Romney split following general expectations, if Santorum pulled off upsets in California and New Jersey, the final delegate total after the primaries could be:  Santorum 1032 to Romney 904.   Gingrich would have 177 in that scenario, and if he threw his support to Santorum it would mean Santorum gets the nod.

However, if Santorum is on a roll where he wins California and New Jersey, other states now seen as likely Romney could switch, and it’s conceivable Santorum would have enough delegates going into the convention.

How likely is this?   In a different year I’d say very unlikely.   Republicans want to win, and I think most doubt Santorum could pull it off.  He lacks organization, his views that play so well to the GOP base turn off independents and he has a host of quotes and soundbites that would come back to haunt him.   Romney isn’t a super candidate, but he looks the part, is organized, well practiced, and his weaknesses in the primaries could become strengths in the general election.  After he’s the nominee, the thinking goes, being considered “not conservative enough” will help rather than hurt him.

This year, I don’t know.   It’s been such a roller coaster that momentum matters.   Moreover, Romney voters are unenthused; few people say “Mitt’s got the vision and plan to lead us to greatness, he inspires me!”   Most say “he’s probably the best we have to go against Obama.”  Santorum isn’t a golden tongued orator, but he can inspire, and seems to speak from the heart.   Mitt speaks from a script – and the script varies depending upon the audience.  Consider the primaries on Tuesday.   Romney did very well where he was supposed to, but voter turnout was very low.   People wanted to go vote for Santorum, they didn’t really care enough about Romney.

That’s a profound weakness for Romney, one that won’t go away in the general election.   To unseat a sitting President is difficult, even when the economy is bad.   You hear claims like “no President has won re-election when the unemployment rate is over 7.2% since FDR,” but that’s a umeaningless factoid.  The “N” is too small!    The only Presidents not to win re-election since then are Ford, Carter and Bush the Elder.   N = 3.  In each case you can find a host of other reasons for the loss.  In each case the opponent was an inspiring outsider.

Romney fails to arouse passion, he doesn't inspire

The ball’s now in Romney’s court.  He’s got the lead and he can either try to sit on it and watch the math roll his way, or he can up his game and try to give a positive message rather than simply showering negative ads on the other.   He has to find his inspirational voice, or risk going into a brokered convention as a damaged and flawed candidate who couldn’t seal the deal, and found himself stymied by the most unlikely of GOP Presidential candidates – a guy who lost big in his last run for the Senate.

In such a case the answer in Tampa might be “none of the above.”   In other words, if you thought the Democrats provided primary excitement in 2008, things could be even messier on the GOP side in 2012.

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  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on March 15, 2012 - 17:11

    “ew people say “Mitt’s got the vision and plan to lead us to greatness, he inspires me!” Most say “he’s probably the best we have to go against Obama.”

    This seems to be conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s perspective too from a recent column of his that sees Romney as ” Mr. Good-Enough”

    “So the primary electorate was left to choose from a roster of retreads, mediocrities and cable-news candidates. And given their options, Republican voters have acquitted themselves about as sensibly, responsibly and even patriotically as anyone could reasonably expect.” SOURCE

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