The Republican Race at Halftime

It’s halftime in the race for the Republican nomination. After Rick Santorum’s victory in Louisiana on March 24, slightly more than half of the delegates (54%) to the Tampa GOP convention have been chosen.

As of March 26, Mitt Romney had lapped the field with more delegates than Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul combined. He is estimated to now have 565 delegates, with 1144 needed for victory. Powered by clutch wins in big states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, and taking advantage of a divided opposition, Romney is in a very strong position for a first-ballot nomination. It will be virtually impossible for either Santorum or Gingrich to win more delegates than Romney; the best they can hope to do is block him on the first ballot and then try to pick up the pieces after that.  As we shall see, the clock is running and key parts of the schedule favor Mitt Romney. Barring a string of fumbles, the nomination is now his to lose.

As Ron Brownstein pointed out in National Journal, the Republican race has been a contest between the “GOP’s upscale managerial wing,” led by Romney, and the more populist base of evangelicals who have split their votes between Santorum and Gingrich. Romney has generally won the big metropolitan areas — Miami, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Phoenix, and Chicago — while Santorum and Gingrich have usually won the South and Heartland rural votes. Santorum has yet to win a state with a central city that has over one million people or any of the 10 most populous states.

The good news for Romney — besides the fact that he’s had more than one opponent — is that there are generally more middle-class suburban Republican voters than rural populists. Organization, money, and demographics have carried Romney thus far.  Unless Santorum can shake up the race with some unexpected victories in California, New York, Wisconsin, or New Jersey, Romney will probably continue to grind out a victory.

How does the second half look?  In April alone, there are three Northeastern “winner-take-all” primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and New York.  Adding those 151 Northeastern delegates plus a majority of the 54 to be chosen in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware will give Romney well over 700, nearly two-thirds of the way home. And adding the 262 winner-take-all delegates from California, New Jersey, and Utah gets Romney 90% of the way to 1144.   Adding in delegates for second-place finishes in Texas (where there are plenty of wealthy suburbanites) and other Southern/Heartland states would then put Romney over the top by June.

To have any chance of blocking Romney’s relentless march to a first-ballot victory, Santorum will have to win Wisconsin on April 3; get a big majority in his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24; and string together victories down the stretch in North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, and all the remaining Southern and Heartland states. But that still wouldn’t be enough. Santorum would have to also take away some states where Romney is favored — either California or New Jersey, or both — plus smaller Sun Belt states like New Mexico.  That is an extremely tall order for a candidate with little money or organization who also may be running out of time. And unfortunately for Santorum, both the latest national Gallup poll and USC/L.A. Times poll of California Republicans give Romney a double-digit lead.

What are the chances that Santorum can put together such a spectacular comeback?  Perhaps the best shot he has is that with Gingrich fading fast, he’ll finally get the one-on-one showdown he’s wanted with Romney. Exit polls have consistently shown that conservatives outnumber moderate Republicans by about a 60-40 average. Santorum may be able to contrast his opposition to President Obama’s health care bill with Romney’s previous support for a mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance. Santorum already has the strong support of social conservatives.  To win suburban states like California and New Jersey, he’ll need to peel away some economic conservatives from Romney.  “ObamaCare” might be his best wedge issue. But unless Santorum can get a breakout win in California, New York, or New Jersey, he’ll be facing some pretty tough delegate math.

To use the football metaphor again, by winning the bigger states, Romney has been scoring touchdowns while Santorum’s smaller states have only been field goals.  The danger for Santorum is that he may fall too far behind while his opponent simply runs out the clock.  To catch up, he’ll need some Romney fumbles.  The odds are against it, but in this year, anything is possible.

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