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Post Partisan
Posted at 11:44 AM ET, 04/03/2012

Will Santorum drop out?

By all accounts, Mitt Romney should win in the Maryland and D.C. primaries today and will very likely complete a sweep in Wisconsin. By now, virtually everyone understands that the nomination contest is basically over — to really compete, Rick Santorum not only has to win marginal states such as Wisconsin, but also good Romney states such as Maryland. And that’s not going to happen.

The real question is whether Santorum will throw in the towel after he’s beaten today. If he fights on through the end of the primaries in June, he will probably embarrass Romney by winning a few states, and at the very least Romney will still have to contest the remaining primaries much more seriously with Santorum in than if his only opponent is Ron Paul. So what will Santorum do?

It depends on what he’s after.

Suppose that Santorum’s main goal at this point is either a Cabinet position or, if he’s lucky, the VP slot. In that case, the main constituency he cares about is very narrow: He wants to keep Mitt Romney happy. The best path, obviously, is to drop out and endorse the nominee.

On the other hand, what if Santorum wants a good slot on Fox News, or a syndicated national radio talk show, or big book sales? In that case, the additional exposure of staying in the race as long as possible is the way to go — unless the pressure to drop out begins to threaten those goals. Note that we have no idea (as far as I know) how this works: If Republican Party actors are unhappy with someone, can they cut off those kinds of opportunities?

What if Santorum is, at this point, running for 2016 (or 2020)? I’m not sure it matters. Stay in, and you get to campaign in several extra states, all of which will be holding primaries in future cycles. On the other hand, Santorum has already achieved second place in this cycle, and winning a handful of additional states (while losing more) wouldn’t change that for the better. Meanwhile, if next time around is his goal, he surely doesn’t want to play the spoiler this time. On balance, I think that pushes him towards a dignified exit after today’s primaries, but it’s a close call.

There is, of course, another possibility: that Santorum mistakenly believes that he still has a chance to be nominated. Remember: No politician gets to this point without having, at some point in his or her career, won an election when conventional wisdom suggested it wasn’t going to happen. Santorum doesn’t have to look far: No one expected him to win in Iowa until very close to the end, and his big day in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri was a total shocker. It’s also true that politicians spend most of their time with their strongest supporters (and, in many cases, operatives who have a financial stake in the campaign continuing), and it’s often the explicit job of those supporters to keep the candidate “up.” It’s not surprising that politicians might sometimes be more optimistic than the facts justify.

I don’t really want to guess what will happen — you can never really get inside the heads of politicians. Especially since, in this case, what Santorum does really depends on what he wants — and that, we don’t know.

By  |  11:44 AM ET, 04/03/2012

 
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