It’s almost impossible to imagine Rick Santorum winning the Republican nomination on the first ballot. That’s not to say he shouldn’t press on, but there are huge challenges before him.
Santorum’s main problem boils down to one word: proportionality. Many states in which his support is strong allocate delegates according to candidates’ share of the popular vote, so Santorum loses out on some big delegate hauls.
Take a look at Super Tuesday. That day, Tennessee and Ohio are big prizes, offering 58 and 66 delegates each. Although Santorum leads in both states, he won’t get all the delegates — as Romney has done in Florida and Arizona — because both are proportional states.
Technically, Santorum could win all 58 delegates in the Volunteer State, but to do so, he’d have to win over 66 percent of the vote across the state and in every congressional district. As Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics points out, “Tennessee is such a big, diverse state” that he assumes “Romney [will break] through in one of the more urbanized districts.”
In Ohio, meanwhile, Santorum would need to win over 50 percent of the vote statewide and a plurality in every congressional district to nab all 66 delegates. In the latest poll, Santorum leads by eleven points but only has 37 percent of the vote. Now, if Newt Gingrich’s supporters consolidated behind him, he could pass the 50 percent mark. But that’s a big “if.”
Which leads to his second problem: Gingrich is a steadily decreasing — but still significant — drag. Consider Georgia, Super Tuesday’s biggest prize, with 76 delegates. Gingrich continues to lead, though Santorum has narrowed the gap significantly in some polls. The ex-senator would need to win a majority of the vote in each district to prevent his opponents from siphoning off some delegates. Otherwise, the second-highest vote-getter in each district will receive one delegate.
Other states that are potentially lucrative for Santorum are entirely proportional, with no winner-take-all option. They include Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, and South Dakota. Most of them have vote thresholds, but they’re not particularly high: 15 percent in some, 20 percent in others. Some are so low that Ron Paul may even make the cut. If so, that complicates the delegate math even further.
Finally, Mitt Romney’s trump cards are those big, blue Northeastern states, in which he’s expected to do well. It’s hard to imagine him not winning winner-take-all New Jersey — and all its 50 delegates. It’s also hard to see him not cleaning up in California, which, though it allocates delegates mostly by congressional district, went for John McCain overwhelmingly in 2008.
In a highly speculative exercise, I tried to envision the most generous realistic scenario for Santorum’s final delegate count. I assumed he would win most of the remaining rural states by large margins, say 50 percent or more. I even assumed he would win far-flung contests in territories such as the Northern Marianas and Virgin Islands. Even under these rosy assumptions, I could get Santorum up to only about 1,000 delegates.
Santorum doesn’t necessarily need to win enough delegates to secure a first-ballot triumph. But with Romney leading nationally by 16 points, he will face a hard slog.
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.