Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Winning Small

Despite close victories in Alabama and Mississippi, Rick Santorum could very easily find himself further behind Mitt Romney in terms of the delegate count as a result of Tuesday's primaries.  Why?  In part because of Romney's crushing win in Hawaii.

Santorum's problem is that, for many of the significant primaries he wins, his margin of victory is small, and, in most states, this small margin of victory translates to a much smaller delegate lead.  For example, Santorum's win in Oklahoma only netted him one delegate over Romney (14-13), and his Mississippi victory looks likely to do so as well.  While Santorum has had some large margins of victory in a few states (such as Kansas and North Dakota), many of his victories are small ones; about half of his margins of victory are under six points, and many of his wins have come in relatively smaller states.  These victories are enough to maintain media momentum, but they do not rack up the delegates.

Romney, on the other hand, has had numerous large margins of victory in numerous big states.  He netted 38 delegates in Massachusetts, 50 delegates in Florida (a winner-take-all state), 16 delegates in Ohio (35-19 over Santorum), and so forth.  Romney does have some smaller delegate margins in a number of states, but he also has had numerous big wins; these large wins in part account for his large delegate lead over Santorum and Gingrich.

In some ways, Rick Santorum finds himself in the position of Hillary Clinton in 2008 (though he is not running nearly as strongly as Clinton did): she won numerous big states (such as California and New York), but she didn't have as many crushing victory margins as Obama did.  Obama used these big margins to get a significant delegate lead that Clinton was never able to overcome.

Under a proportional system, winning big matters.  Obama used that to his advantage in 2008.  So far, this emphasis on winning big has helped Romney.  It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue in the future.  It perhaps should be noted, though, that many of the upcoming winner-take-all states are territory that would seem rather friendly to Romney (such as New Jersey and Utah).  Moreover, if we keep seeing three-way Southern splits in the future (thanks in part to Newt Gingrich), it seems unlikely that Santorum will net many delegates on Romney from that region.

(All delegate estimates come from CNN)

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