Mitt Romney’s campaign sent out a memo yesterday saying, “As the other candidates attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are Barack Obama’s.” The memo asserts that “the delegate math just doesn’t add up for anyone but Mitt.” Well, let’s take a look at that math.
According to RealClearPolitics, fewer than a third of all GOP delegates have been awarded to date, leaving more than two-thirds still to be won. So, delegate-wise, this contest is still early in the second quarter — or, if you prefer, in the bottom of the third inning. Has Romney run up such overwhelming tallies in the early part of the game that it’s time to invoke the mercy rule? Hardly.
First, this is a contest to win the Republican presidential nomination and take on President Obama in perhaps the most important election since the Civil War. There is no mercy rule.
Second, across the 22 GOP primaries and caucuses to date, Romney has won 40 percent of the popular vote. (That’s not counting the non-binding Missouri primary, in which Romney lost to Rick Santorum by 30 points.) That’s netted him 55 percent of the 733 delegates awarded to date (including the 2 that were awarded to Jon Huntsman). If Romney keeps winning at this clip, he’ll clear the necessary 1,144 delegates that a candidate needs to win the GOP nomination. But if he wins only 47 percent of the delegates from here on out — not that much of a decline from 55 percent — he won’t hit 1,144.
There’s no guarantee that Romney will continue to win at the same rate. Despite the fact that he won a whopping 72 percent of the votes in his home state of Massachusetts, he still managed to win only 38 percent of the overall popular vote on Super Tuesday. In nearly half of the Super Tuesday states (four of ten), his percentage of the vote was in the 20s. He still won 55 percent of the delegates on the day, but his popular vote tallies might have been somewhat worrisome for his campaign. Perhaps that’s why they don’t seem too eager to play the game for four quarters.
As for the claim that “the delegate math just doesn’t add up for the other candidates,” it’s a bit beside the point. If Romney fails to reach 1,144 delegates and heads into a contested convention, it’s doubtful that he’ll take much solace in knowing that none of the other candidates hit 1,144 either. Nonetheless, Santorum could plausibly still hit that mark. To do so, he’d simply need to do a bit better in the contests still to come (which will award the remaining two-thirds of delegates) than Romney has done in the contests to date (which have awarded the first third of delegates). While Romney has won 55 percent of the delegates so far, Santorum would have to win 63 percent of the delegates the rest of the way (to reach 1,144). He presumably won't do that. But if you go through the remaining states, assume Santorum improves a few points and starts to beat Romney quite often, then Santorum could work himself into a delegate tie with, or even a lead over, Romney, by the end of the contest.
It’s not hard to see a situation where Romney could end the primaries short of a majority of delegates. And while it seems likely that the candidate with the most delegates going into the convention (even if just a plurality) would still have the inside track to the nomination, would that be the case if Romney loses the majority of races from this point on?
None of this assumes a wild reversal in Santorum's direction. It does assume that Santorum does better than he's done so far. Maybe he won't do so. But that's why we play games from the fourth inning on, as teams do sometimes succeed in coming back from a few runs behind.
Perhaps the broader point, however, is that competition need not prove harmful to a candidate. Barack Obama managed to survive a lengthy Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton and still beat John McCain by 7 points. A good case could even be made that Obama emerged from that contest a more battle-tested, better-prepared, and stronger candidate. One wonders why the Romney camp doesn’t think the same would be true for the former Massachusetts governor.