Oval Office Thunderdome: Keep on Keepin’ On

One thing I enjoy about a presidential election season is crunching numbers. With 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination, and 1,358 remaining on the table (all delegate numbers based on New York Times reporting), there’s plenty of fun to be had with numbers.

So far, Mitt Romney is leading the pack with 495 delegates. Rick Santorum is second with 252, Newt Gingrich is third with 131, and Ron Paul is last with 48.

This race has not been a sprint. Unless something changes the public perception of one of the candidates enough to give them unstoppable momentum, the primaries will continue to be a long slog. That could happen. Rick Santorum was able to claim last night that he had won the evening, owing to his victories in the Alabama and Mississippi contests. Yes, Santorum won those two events. But there were four primaries last night, not two. American Samoa and Hawaii also held their primaries, and Romney won both of those. In addition, the proportional distribution of delegates that most states have used to this point means that a slim victory in a state doesn’t do much to either increase Romney’s delegate lead, or help close the gap for Santorum.

Last night, Santorum took 36 delegates, while Romney took 43. The lead stories from the news media this morning featured a beaming Santorum, but in fact, Romney won the evening. Perception being a rather huge deal in the primaries, don’t expect Santorum to admit things didn’t go as well as he needed them to last night. After all…Hawaii? American Samoa? That isn’t REAL America. Mississippi and Alabama are real places with real people, and Santorum won those.

Santorum could conceivably win a majority of the remaining contests yet still come up short on delegates. This is where perception comes in. There are 26 contests remaining, about half of which apportion delegates proportionally. I find it hard to believe the party wouldn’t nominate a candidate that won at least the majority of those contests regardless of how the delegates were apportioned. In short, the GOP is headed for a mess of a convention.

While apportioning delegates proportionally is more fair than a winner take all system, it comes with its own inherent caveats. In a proportional system, it’s easier for a mediocre frontrunner to pull away from the pack, and more difficult for a second place challenger to make up ground.

What if every GOP primary and caucus were winner take all? Including pledged superdelegates, but not counting a handful of unallocated delegates, the numbers change to Romney: 521; Santorum: 335; Gingrich: 94; Paul: 1. What was a 243-delegate lead for Romney becomes a 186-delegate lead. This confirms that the proportional primary system the GOP uses is helping Romney while making it hard for Rick Santorum, who has built remarkable momentum these last weeks, to put forth an effective challenge. But that’s not all the help Romney is getting.

Romney is getting smoked by hardcore conservatives. He has not won their vote in any of the contests to date. Instead, those voters are splitting their votes between Santorum and Gingrich. If Gingrich had not been in the race, it’s conceivable that Santorum could have won South Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio. Not enough to put Santorum in the lead, but it puts him somewhere around 100 delegates closer to Romney. (The math on this one is speculative and a bit esoteric, as there is no way to know for sure how conservatives would have voted without Gingrich around. But I think it works.)

The GOP is getting tired of the drawn out pace of this primary season, but tweaking the race in just a couple different ways shows that it could be a closer, and therefore more drawn out, contest.

The next few weeks feature contests in more cosmopolitan areas of the country, including Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and Illinois. Look for Romney to head into May with an even bigger lead than he has now.