Since the GOP presidential race started in earnest last year, pundits have tagged Mitt Romney as the eventual nominee. As the primary season progressed, Rick Santorum put a bump in the road in Iowa, and then Newt Gingrich did the same in South Carolina. Romney responded by taking New Hampshire, then Florida and with Nevada, and the crown of nominee was being fitted for his head. After last night’s sweep by Santorum in Minnesota, Colorado and Minnesota, it is time to put this inevitable-nominee stuff for Romney to rest. This is going to be a long slog with some unpredictable turns to come.
It makes no sense to call Romney the frontrunner when he has lost five out of eight contests. Rick Santorum has bested Romney by winning four contests to Romney’s three. That doesn’t make Santorum the frontrunner, because he is still running third in delegates. It does make for a muddled and bloody primary season ahead.
Romney’s nomination has been pushed as inevitable because he has millions in the bank while Santorum and Gingrich have to penny-pinch. Romney is the only candidate with a national organization. He is also the only candidate who hasn’t bounced up and down in the polls like a bouncing ball. Those are signs of strength, but the fact that Romney hasn’t been able to seal the deal with Republican voters means that these are simply a facade covering his political weaknesses.
Let’s face it; the Republican Party is deeply divided. There are still moderates in the Republican Party, but they have been quieted. The activists are the social and economic conservatives, and neither completely trusts Romney because he has a history as a moderate and governor of Massachusetts, which in the eyes of many Republicans is like the secretary general of the Soviet communist party coming to America to run for president.
Usually, money makes a big difference in politics. This time it doesn’t. Paul Begala of The Daily Beast stated that Romney’s Super PAC outspent Santorum’s 40 to 1 in Minnesota. Romney came in third, behind Ron Paul, with 17% of the vote. This is a stunning repudiation for Romney.
Although Romney can claim a national campaign, his opponents are well-positioned to challenge him regionally. Ron Paul has a national campaign. Although he may not win any contest, Paul may go into the Republican convention with as many as 200 delegates because of his hard-core group of supporters spread throughout the nation.
Santorum and Gingrich are emerging as regional candidates, but to their fortune they are challenging Romney in different regions. Santorum has become a candidate to beat in the Midwest; Gingrich looks like the candidate to beat in the South.
There messages resonate with different voters as well. Santorum has become the social conservative voice. Social conservatives have been promised their agenda since Reagan on the issues of abortion, prayer in the schools and family values, but little has been done on the national level by either Reagan or the two Bushes. Santorum has emerged as the strongest candidate for that agenda in the last thirty years. He has judiciously used his limited money, combined with good old person-to-person campaigning.
Gingrich resonates with a different voter. He speaks for Bubba, especially the lower-middle class white male voter in the South who has felt an economic decline in the last 30 years. These are the voters who are immensely patriotic, despise immigrants, and feel that they have been displaced by the economic change of traditional industries dying and the rise of a high-tech global economy.
Mitt Romney cannot relate to the social conservatives because of his liberal past on social issues. He doesn’t appeal to the Bubba-like voters who find that a Massachusetts businessman worth $200 million doesn’t understand their lives and problems.
Paul has a cadre of supporters that is good for 10-15% of the vote just about anywhere. Occasionally, Paul breaks out with 25% or so, as he did in Minnesota and New Hampshire.
Taking a look at the election results at the county level reveals the trends above in a clearer perspective. It may be possible to begin coloring in the rest of the map because these four candidates are going to stay in the race until someone has the majority needed for nomination.
However, there are some important developments and facts about the nomination process that both work for and against Romney.
First of all, the Republican Party set up the primary season to exclude winner-take-all contests until after April 1. Florida bucked the trend, but lost half its delegates because of that. The rest of the contests until April 1 are almost exclusively proportional in delegate distribution. That means even a candidate who receives 10% of the vote might pick up a couple of delegates. It means that there is not a combination of primaries to deliver a knockout punch until at least April.
Second, March does not promise to be a good month for Romney as it includes Southern and border states that are not Romney-friendly. In April, winner-take-all contests on the East Coast pop up. This should be Romney country, but Santorum is from Pennsylvania, and if he continues to surge, Romney may not find much pleasure then either.
Third, there are 59 delegates from the territories of the Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Northern Mariana Islands. Traditionally, these areas get little attention, but those 59 delegates could play pivotal in securing the 1,144 needed for nomination. Most of these delegates are up for grabs in March when the candidates are focused on contests on the mainland. It will be interesting to see which campaign sends resources to normally forgotten caucuses. Romney may be the only candidate with the resources to compete there.
Fourth, Santorum failed to make the Indiana ballot. With his strength in the Midwest, this may have been a victory for him, but now it is up for grabs between Romney and Gingrich. In Virginia, both Gingrich and Santorum have failed to make the ballot. That leaves only Romney and Paul on the ballot. Both of these states could been losses for Romney, and now he may win both. Indiana is a winner-take-all state with 46 delegates. Virginia has 49. Presumably, Romney wins Virginia and takes most of those delegates.
Romney could pick up 80 delegates in Virginia and Indiana, plus the lion’s share of the 59 in the territories. That could give him 120 or so delegates, or roughly 10% of what he needs for the nomination. It is a nice chunk, much of it a gift from disorganization and lack of resources by his opponents.
By the end of the primary season, Romney needs over 1,000 committed delegates if he wants the nomination. If he is only 100 or so short of the magic 1,144 number, then he might be able to pick off enough from super delegates and other candidates to get the nomination. If he is under 1,000, this convention is going to go into multiple ballots. If that happens, the nominee will not be Romney. It may be one of the other contenders or an outside candidate who never ran for the nomination this year.
Taking the trends of the voting so far, I filled in the states that have not voted using polls and some demographics. It is an uneven prediction because rules for proportioning delegates vary from state to state. Besides, no one knows the dynamics of the race at the time a state votes. However, if the trend continues without a candidate making a breakout, then it is possible to see Romney at 900-1,000 delegates, Santorum at 700, Gingrich at 400 and Paul at 200. Of course, the results aren’t going to break as geographically clean as this map proposes, but taking the trends now in place, it may not be that far off.
Once again, Gingrich is being written off. However, if it isn’t Gingrich taking the South, it isn’t going to be Romney. Can anyone imagine Alabama or Texas picking Romney over Santorum at this point?
Some might dispute this by pointing to the lead that Romney now holds. According to CNN, Romney has 115, Gingrich 38, Santorum 34 and Paul 20 delegates. Romney’s opponents only have 92, so Romney has a majority despite not having won a majority of states. This is deceptive because Florida was a winner-take-all with 50 delegates. Other winner-take-all states are not guaranteed to go for Romney. If Florida was proportional, Romney would be well in the minority in total delegates. The Romney bandwagon is in danger of losing its wheels. Whatever happens, the months ahead are likely to bring more twists than we have seen in a presidential nomination contest in quite a while.