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Rick v Delegate Math

Hunter Baker, Associate Dean of Arts & Science
Mar 25, 2012

The former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had a good night on Super Tuesday with a win here in Tennessee (and in Madison County). He had a better one on March 13, as he walked away with wins in both Alabama and Mississippi.

Gov. Mitt Romney ended up getting swept in his self-proclaimed “away” games. The losses hurt because of expectations that are hard for Romney’s team to manage. Some observers saw the potential in poll numbers for Romney to win these southern states and hungered for a decisive blow that could have freed Romney to turn his attention to President Obama full-time.

A couple of third-place finishes are a deflating alternative. Never mind that the three top candidates were tightly clustered around 30 percent in both races. There’s only one winner in the public mind. That’s the surging Rick Santorum, a man many of us thought was a political has-been. He has improbably managed to catch lightning in a bottle this primary season.

Howard Dean seemed like a big deal running on “people-power” in 2004 against John Kerry. Santorum has surpassed Dean’s surprising effort. Meanwhile, liberals are calling for Republicans to “please nominate this man” just as conservatives hoped to face Dean.

Just as Romney’s effort demonstrates some weakness, many suspect Santorum’s campaign is just getting geared up — and staffed up. Foster Friess looks as prescient with his political investment in Santorum as he has in the smart choices that have made him a near billionaire in the business world. While Romney and his backers have received a small return on their huge investment, Santorum and Friess have scored big with much smaller amounts.

Romney continues to rely on proportionate-delegate math as he trudges relentlessly toward the convention, but the sense of inevitability is gone. He could arrive at the convention as the victor on extremely unsteady legs. Or, though the odds are against it, he may yet face a late summer meeting where some serious work still has to be done.

Ford fended off a serious challenge from Reagan in 1976, but at the end of it he was still president at the convention. Romney won’t have that distinction to bolster him after a grueling contest. And by the way, there is absolutely no romance or music in delegate math. Romney’s team can repeat it ad nauseam, but don’t expect the voters to go gaga for it.

Newt Gingrich performed adequately, with a couple of second-place finishes where he should be at his strongest, but Santorum is taking all the air out of the room for him. The speaker’s win in Georgia kept him alive, but his tank is running low. The guy pushing the lunar base needed to win the state with a Huntsville struggling to find a future in an era of low support for NASA.

Finally, the biggest loser (and I mean that in the nicest way possible) is Mike Huckabee. His decision to quit serious politics for a low-impact, but probably well-paying, turn in political broadcasting looks pretty poor in the light of the Republican contest so far.

The former governor of Arkansas was the original king of ringing up votes with low dollars. And his tongue weighs in with a lot more silver than Santorum’s. Huckabee’s irrelevance to the process represents a major wasted opportunity.