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Is Rick Santorum closer in the delegate race than we think?

at 09:56 AM ET, 03/20/2012

Rick Santorum’s campaign on Monday set about arguing that it is actually much closer in the delegate race than current projections indicate.

Rather than the 268-delegate deficit that AP currently projects, Santorum’s campaign estimates that it trails only by 124 delegates, according to a memo obtained by ABC News.
Standing in front of a statue of Ronald Reagan on horseback, Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum speaks at a campaign rally Monday in Dixon, Ill. Dixon is the boyhood home of Reagan. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

It’s theoretically possible. But it’s also a best-case scenario that is unlikely, and it’s based on a lot of assumptions that are hard to make.

Santorum’s numbers improve under his campaign’s estimate based on two assumptions:

One is that the 79 delegates Arizona and Florida are currently awarding on a winner-take-all basis to Romney will eventually be awarded proportionally, since no state holding a primary before April is supposed to use the winner-take-all method.

And the second is that Santorum is getting more delegates in caucus states than the results suggest. This is because, while the delegate projections in those states are based on the results of a straw poll, the actual selection of the delegates is a separate process in which a campaign with a good organization can win more delegates than initial projections.

In both cases, Santorum’s campaign is engaging in wishful thinking.

On the first count: the Republican National Committee’s rules committee would have to vote at the party’s convention in August for the allocation change, and right now, the RNC has said it can’t force Arizona and Florida to go proportional.

The RNC has already punished those two states for holding their contests too early, and it has said that it cannot punish them a second time for ignoring the delegate allocation rules, which prohibit winner-take-all contests before April.

We already dealt with this situation around the time of the Florida primary. And while there has been a push by some in the RNC community to make Arizona and Florida go proportional, it hasn’t exactly been a groundswell.

Even in the event that the change is made, we won’t know until basically at the convention whether some of Arizona’s and Florida’s delegates would shift to Santorum, and Santorum would have to stay in that race that long, which is not an easy thing.

Not to mention the fact that Santorum would get few or no delegates out of Florida’s 50, since he finished in a distant third place, at 13 percent (he would basically be arguing for some of Romney’s delegates to shift to second-place Newt Gingrich). All Santorum could personally gain are some of Arizona’s 29 delegates, which would hardly tilt the race on its head.

In total, it’s hard to see Santorum gaining more than 20 delegates if the allocation method is changed in those two states. Romney, meanwhile, could lose 30 or 35, meaning Santorum’s deficit would decline by around 50 delegates — not a huge change.

In addition, the Santorum campaign’s contention that it has actually won many more delegates at caucuses than projections suggest is hard to believe.

Santorum’s campaign has failed to qualify for full slates of delegates in several states – an organizational failure that has cost him dearly. But we are to believe that this same campaign organization has been so good in caucus states that it will out-perform its showings in the caucus straw polls?

That seems unlikely – even when you consider that his campaign is more robust these days than it used to be.

We can see that being the case with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has focused heavily on caucuses so far. But with Santorum, it’s harder to believe his organization has produced such results above and beyond his already-strong showings in the caucus straw polls. He may gain extra delegates, but the idea that it would shift the race in a huge manner seems to be a stretch.

And even if all of this turns out to be true, we won’t know that for some time. Meanwhile, Santorum is losing in the perception game and is essentially playing for the convention.

If Romney is close to getting the actual 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination, it’s going to be hard for Santorum to argue that a shift of 50 or 70 delegates is going to make the difference and that his party should allow for an open convention rather than accepting Romney as its nominee, warts and all.

 
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