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Opinion,Politics & Elections

The Math Behind Mitt

Mar. 7th, 2012
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RALEIGH – Political math isn’t all about arithmetic.

According to the arithmetic, Mitt Romney didn’t clinch the GOP presidential nomination in yesterday’s Super Tuesday balloting. He can’t possibly collect the 1,144 delegates required to claim the nomination for some time to come. And he lost Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and North Dakota to his rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

But if you think about the matter probabilistically, Super Tuesday nevertheless served to advance Romney further towards the nomination. Gingrich gave an overlong, self-involved speech early in the evening that signaled his intention to move forward to the next round of contests – thus continuing to split the non-Romney vote.

Santorum, for his part, gave a lackluster speech in Ohio that failed to develop a unifying theme for Republicans. His Super Tuesday victories, while impressive, were marred by a failure to get on the ballot in Virginia and in parts of Ohio, essentially spotting Romney some delegate points right off the bat.

Ron Paul continued his strategy of picking up delegates wherever he can. It’s a strategy designed not to win the nomination – in my view Paul has never been as unrealistic as some of his supporters are – but instead to guarantee a prime speaking spot at the GOP convention in Tampa and attention to his monetary-policy positions in the GOP platform.

In short, none of them did do enough to change the probability calculus. After victories in Arizona, Michigan, and Washington last week, Romney’s Super Tuesday wins, including the squeaker in Ohio, solidified his frontrunner status. Even his second-place showings mattered in states such as Georgia and Tennessee that allocate delegates proportionally or by congressional district rather than by winner-take-all.

Romney leads in delegates. He leads in the popular vote to date. He leads in fundraising, endorsements, and organization. Unless something bizarre happens – some embarrassing new disclosure or gaffe on his part – Mitt Romney will be Barack Obama’s general-election opponent.

What happens then? Well, both sides will spend much of the late spring and summer in prep mode – raising money, building their get-out-the-vote machines in key states, and testing their respective messages via polling, focus groups, and media sparring. Democrats and Republicans will also turn to other election matters, divining where best to focus their efforts not just to win the presidential race but also to win key races for Senate, House, governor, and state legislature around the country.

While Romney’s ability to defeat Obama may remain debatable, there is little doubt that many Republican politicians wanted him at the top of the ticket rather than Santorum or Gingrich because they thought a Romney candidacy posed less of a risk to their own electoral prospects. While losing the presidential race would disappoint them, they’d rather live through another 1992 or 1996 – when GOP losses for president were accompanied by some offsetting GOP victories elsewhere – than go through another disastrous cycle like 1964 or 2008.

Their statistical assessment of the 2012 election is entirely defensible. I continue to think that current trends predict a very close presidential contest in November. It might well come down to a point or two difference in the popular vote and key battles in swing states such as Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and our own North Carolina.

Under those circumstances, one plausible scenario would be an Obama reelection combined with a Republican retention of the U.S. House, takeover of the U.S. Senate, and net gain of three to four governorships. Another plausible scenario would be a Romney victory combined with Republican losses in U.S. House seats and Democratic retention of the U.S. Senate.

Right now, in other words, it looks like the 2012 cycle won’t be a wave election like 2006 and 2008 were for the Democrats and 2010 was for the Republicans. Instead, it looks like a knock-down, drag-out political brawl from coast to coast, Great Lakes to Gulf, to be settled by turnout efforts and mercurial swing voters in hundreds of federal, state, and local contests. It looks like several months of spirited debate about the economy, energy policy, taxes, regulation, deficit spending, and the future of freedom in the United States.

In short, it looks like fun.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.